A Historical Change as Voters Approve Gambling at Nebraska Racetracks

  • After the controversy, many celebrate as casino gambling comes to Nebraska via state racetracks
  • Supporters argued the change was necessary as needed tax money was going to nearby states
  • Next big question of sports wagering for Nebraska will likely be addressed in 2021

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Upon much anticipation and often much controversy, casino gambling finally became official as Nebraska state voters overwhelmingly approved three constitutional amendments to authorize it, tax it, and designate the revenue fostered by it for property tax relief.

Almost 2 out of every 3 votes approved Initiatives 429, 430, and 431 allowing casino gambling at horse racing tracks in Nebraska, including Lincoln Race Course. The celebration continued through the night for horse racing officials, calling the historic votes a game-changer for their industry that has suffered decades of decline.

Overall, the bill’s passage will allow casino gambling at state-licensed horse racing tracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, Columbus, and South Sioux City, Nebraska.

Opponents fought hard to keep the issue off the ballot, including filing a lawsuit in September that was rejected by the Nebraska Supreme Court. They had argued the change would lead to increases in crime and bankruptcy. Conversely, supporters have said legalizing casinos in Nebraska will create jobs and a new source of state tax revenue.

As a result, now voters have approved a change to the state constitution to allow slot machines and table games, as well as two laws that will regulate and tax casino gambling. The supporters project Nebraska could take in nearly $65 million annually by taxing the casino revenue.

Why Change was Necessary

Riverboat casinos in Council Bluffs, Iowa, ultimately put Omaha’s famed Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track out of business during the mid-1990s, said Lynne McNally of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “It’s sort of ironic that casino gaming will bring us back to those days,” she said.

Nebraska racetracks like Lincoln Race Course will benefit from casino gambling and will help fuel more “live” racing days. Plans are being made to build permanent barns at the track in Lincoln, Nebraska that recently completed a new 7/8th mile track.

The amendments were primarily funded by Keep the Money in Nebraska and received most of its funding from Ho-Chunk Inc. The group pitched the measures to voters as a source to help Nebraska recapture part of the money it loses from residents who cross state borders to play slots and table casino games in nearby states including Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, and Missouri.

Next Question of Sports Betting

No clear answers have been decided upon when or perhaps IF sports wagering will come to Nebraska involving the passage of this bill. The consensus is a one day at a time hurdle likely to be addressed sometime in 2021.

As per all other gambling amendments, all specific games must be clearly defined in the wording of each legislative bill. In this case, they allow horse tracks only to offer games of chance that include casino games and horse racing. Therefore, a new constitutional ballot measure would likely be necessary to include sports betting at those sites. Also, whether “online sports wagering” would be part of the amendment.

In past Nebraska, lawmakers attempted to legalize fantasy sports, with the argument they are games of skill, not chance, therefore not subject to the state’s constitutional gaming restrictions. That current precedent would likely include sports wagering.

Like other states facing this question, the opportunity to pass sports wagering onsite would be easier than including online wagering due to political pressure. Also, opposition from conservative groups within the state who fought against this new casino gambling bill being passed.

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Larry Gibbs

Expert on Sports Betting Industry

Larry Gibbs is both a seasoned journalist and a respected online gaming industry consultant. His wry commentary & sharp analysis have appeared in numerous top gaming and sports wagering publications. He has also served as Vice President of US Gaming Services, a marketing research organization with 15 years of experience in US online wagering. He has spoken at noted gaming industry conferences including G2E, GiGSE, and NCLGS.

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