Casino Legalization in Nebraska Could Go to Public Vote

  • In recent times, gambling has been heavily restricted in Nebraska
  • Attempts to legalize commercial casinos in 2004, 2006, and 2014 failed
  • Proponents of commercial casinos are optimistic that this time around it will be different
  • They need three successful petitions to get the question on the 2020 ballot
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In 2020, Nebraska voters may get the chance to vote on the issue of legalizing commercial casinos.

History of gambling in Nebraska

Gambling has an interesting history in Nebraska. In recent decades the state has been conservative in this regard but throughout the 19th century, it was a hotbed for gambling. 

These days, the main forms of legal gambling are horse racing betting, the state lottery, charitable gaming, and keno. Four tribal gambling facilities also operate in the region, none of which have to pay taxes to the state. For many years, there was not much desire to expand the state’s gambling laws. With a population of just 1.9 million people, there is not a massive market for gambling.

The state government does take in taxes each year of about $50m (£39.5m) from charity gaming and the lottery. Of the 44 states that have lotteries, Nebraska ranks 39th in per capita revenues. This state lottery has been running since 1992 and residents can also buy tickets for multi-state draws such as Powerball and Mega Millions. In recent times, there has been a strong movement to legalize commercial casinos in the state.

Potential legalization of commercial casinos

There have been a few attempts over the years to bring commercial casinos to Nebraska, but with no success. The tribal casinos are allowed to have only bingo and card games in which the house does not have a stake in the outcome, like poker.

However, a petition has been going the rounds to get the issue on the 2020 ballot as a referendum. The main force behind this petition is Ho-Chunk, Inc., the economic development corporation of the state’s Winnebago Tribe.

Similar referenda were on the ballot in 2004 and 2006, but they failed to pass. There was another push in 2014 to allow commercial casinos but that was ruled unconstitutional by the Nebraska Supreme Court and therefore did not make the ballot.

Despite these past failures, people are now more supportive of gambling expansion, even in traditionally conservative states. After the federal sports betting ban ended, many restrictive states legalized the activity. They saw the promising tax revenues and the ability to suck money out of the black market as being legitimate reasons for legalization.

How might this happen?

Some may wonder why one of the Nebraska tribes wants commercial casino legalization. The CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., Lance Morgan, believes that it is “the height of paternalism” for tribes who want to stop commercial casino legalization.

He went on to say that hundreds of millions of dollars crossing over the border each year because some of the neighboring states have Las Vegas-type casinos and others, such as Iowa, also offer sports betting.

After viewing internal polling figures, Morgan is confident that the casino measure will get voter approval if it makes it to the 2020 ballot. Those in favor of this motion believe that key lessons were learned from the past attempts to push through commercial casino legalization and they are presenting this issue in such a way that voters and legislators should not have any major qualms.

Three petitions are involved in the effort. One is for an amendment to the state constitution that would allow the state’s horse tracks to offer casino games. There are also separate petitions for the taxation and regulations of the casino games.

Gambling addiction levels have not yet really been touched upon by the opposition. Currently, Nebraska is 47th of the 50 states in the level of gambling addiction. Only Alaska, Florida, and Utah have lower rates.

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