Gambling foes to fight horse racing ballot measure

Associated PressJuly 16, 2014 

— Gambling opponents have launched a campaign against a Nebraska ballot measure that would allow betting on previously recorded horse races shown on machines that resemble casino slots.

The group Gambling with the Good Life is traveling the state and working with churches in hopes of defeating the November ballot proposal, executive director Pat Loontjer said Wednesday. If approved by voters, the constitutional amendment would clear the way for the video terminals at licensed race tracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings, Grand Island and Columbus.

Supporters say the machines will help Nebraska's horse racing industry, which has struggled for decades as other games became more popular and neighboring states built casinos. The measure is also backed by the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation because of horse racing's ties to agriculture and its support for 4-H programs.

Gambling opponents say the machines would effectively open the door to casino gambling because they run as fast as regular slots and can be just as addictive. Nor are they likely to save traditional horse racing, Loontjer said, pointing to tracks in Nebraska that run as few as one live race a year.

"This is the camel's nose under the tent," said Loontjer, a longtime anti-gambling activist from Omaha.

Nebraska's horse racing industry plans to campaign in favor of the measure, arguing that it will modernize a form of pari-mutuel betting that already exists in the state. The machines allow bettors to view statistics about the horses before each race is shown on the screen, but information that would identify specific horses or races is removed.

"In no way is this expanded gambling," said Gene McCloud, a Grand Island businessman and race-horse owner who plans to help push for the amendment.

Nebraska state Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, who introduced the measure, said the horse racing machines require a degree of skill — assessing a horse's record among other factors — whereas casino slots are purely based on chance.

The machines "can look like whatever you want them to look like," said Lautenbaugh, of Omaha. "What matters is what they actually do," which he said could help revive the industry and preserve its jobs.

The amendment would distribute 49 percent of the tax revenue to schools, 49 percent to reduce property taxes and 2 percent to a state treatment fund for compulsive gamblers. Loontjer said the property tax benefit would amount to only a few cents per person annually.

Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed a bill in 2012 that would have allowed the State Racing Commission to license and regulate historic horse racing terminals. Constitutional amendments don't need the governor's approval, and Nebraska lawmakers approved the amendment for the ballot this year with 30 votes — the minimum needed.

Nebraska allows keno, horse racing, and a lottery, but voters have resisted video gambling machines.

Across the Missouri River, Iowa offers one of the nation's widest ranges of gambling. Nebraska residents generated nearly $327 million in gross revenue for Iowa casinos last year, according to a consultant for the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission. Total gross revenue for the casinos was $1.4 billion, but only 53 percent came from Iowa gamblers.

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