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Simulcast wagering in Lincoln, Omaha must cease Jan. 1; judge denies request to halt state ruling

An ongoing feud between Fonner Park and the state's horsemen now threatens to close betting windows at the state's simulcast horse racing facilities in Lincoln and Omaha.

Simulcast wagering at Lincoln Race Course and Horsemen's Park in Omaha must cease Jan. 1 after a judge on Friday declined to block a state ruling from taking effect, according to court documents.

Omaha Exposition and Racing Inc. on Thursday had appealed the Nebraska State Racing Commission's order earlier this month to cease simulcasting operations at the end of the year.

Omaha Exposition and Racing simulcasts live races from tracks in other states that patrons at the Lincoln Race Course, near U.S. 77 and West Denton Road, and Horsemen's Park in Omaha can bet on.

The commission approved simulcasting agreements in October, and then at its meeting Dec. 19 announced these agreements expired Dec. 31 at 11:59 p.m., according to the appeal.

In the appeal, Chris Jerram, who is representing Omaha Exposition and Racing, said the company had a valid agreement with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent Protective Association that is legally required to simulcast races in Lincoln and Omaha.

He alleges that the commission's decision was unsupported by the evidence and that commissioners "considered and accepted incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial evidence regarding agreements (or a lack thereof) between Fonner Park (in Grand Island)" and the Nebraska HBPA.

The director of the Nebraska State Racing Commission couldn't be reached for comment Friday afternoon and commissioners Dennis Lee and Janell Beveridge declined comment, citing the lawsuit.

Simulcast wagering, where someone in Lincoln can bet on races at Aqueduct in New York or Santa Anita in California, has been legal in Nebraska since 1988, with live pari-mutuel racing dating to 1934 in the state.

But Fonner Park, the Nebraska track with the longest live meet, remains locked in a contract battle with the state's horsemen, an ongoing feud that last year led to simulcasting in Grand Island shutting down for weeks.

Now, with Fonner's live meet set to begin Feb. 23, the disagreement has spilled over to the state's two largest cities.

Because the Nebraska HBPA, representing the state's licensed owners and trainers, must approve all simulcast agreements in the state, and presumably wouldn't be approving any deal with Fonner Park for the new year, it appears the state racing commission opted to cease all agreements.

Bruce Swihart, CEO of Fonner Park, and Barry Lake, president of the Nebraska HBPA, did not immediately return phone messages left Friday afternoon. Earlier this month, both posted letters on their respective websites addressing some of the ongoing issues.

Lincoln Race Course General Manager Christy Harris had no comment.

It was business as usual at the Lincoln simulcast facility on Friday afternoon, with no indication that things would change come Monday.

One regular said the decision was somewhat surprising.

"I think (the commission) has outstepped its bounds," said the man, who declined to provide his name. 

Some patrons said they weren't overly concerned and felt the decision wouldn't be permanent. 

State law requires tracks, including Ag Park in Columbus, to hold one live race annually to offer simulcast betting.

Lincoln Race Course plans two days of live racing in 2018. 

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Event Center poll shows voters resistant to property tax funding for expansion

This is not a good time to be asking voters to increase their property taxes, says Todd Wiltgen, Lancaster County Commissioner, based on his conversations with voters.

That’s also what voters said during a recent telephone poll of 400 registered voters in the county about the Lancaster Event Center.

Most respondents to the poll said they liked the Event Center — many have gone to events there each year — but said they were not willing to pay more in property tax to help expand the venue.

Eighty-two percent had either a very favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of the center, a sprawling campus of indoor and outdoor event space at 84th Street and Havelock Avenue, where more than 300 events are held each year. And that positive attitude crossed political party lines and gender, based on the poll results.

But 65.5 percent of those polled were not likely to support an LEC expansion that would cost the average homeowner about $3 a month in additional property taxes.

After receiving information about the benefits of an expanded center — including a $32 million increase in annual economic impact — poll respondents were more likely to support using a blended financing plan that included sales tax and some property tax increases.

But a slight majority (50.5 percent) continued to be against a tax increase to support the expansion.

The center has been exploring ways to finance an expansion that would include a coliseum with fixed, raised seats, and another multipurpose building that would be available for livestock shows or trade show exhibitions.

The expansion would help attract more national livestock and ag shows and provide room for trade shows that already use the facility to grow in size, said LEC director Amy Dickerson.

Financing for a $60 million to $70 million expansion could include a bond issue, financed by an increase in the property tax, and a 1-cent sales tax on goods and services sold at the Event Center and nearby businesses.

The sales tax option, similar to the additional sales tax approved for SouthPointe Pavilions, would require Lincoln City Council approval.

A bond issue, funded through property tax, would require county board approval to put the issue on the ballot for voter approval. 

Currently, LEC is big enough to take care of community events, but not really big enough to attract national-level shows, said Dickerson.

It is turning away business that could be handled by the expansion, she said.

The poll showed a very positive feedback about the Event Center itself, said Chris Peterson, a public affairs and government relations consultant whose firm handled the November poll including landline and cellphone numbers.

The poll, which included information about the benefits of the center and the expansion, followed by questions about funding the expansion, showed growing support from respondents for financing an expansion after they learned more about the benefits.

“The more you describe the benefits and talk about jobs and economic development, the more traction you get,” Peterson said.

That causes him to believe that an educational campaign, giving voters more information, would mean voters would be more open to voting for a ballot issue, he said.

But that doesn't mean the Lancaster County Ag Society or county can put any issue on the ballot and voters will approve it, he said.

Based on the poll results, Peterson said he doesn't "think the door is closed entirely on the property tax component, but there has to be a plan that is weighted toward sales tax.” 

“The more heavily weighted it is toward the property tax, the more hesitant voters will be to approve it," he said.

The city’s library board is interested in the poll results and the potential LEC request for bond approval and additional property tax dollars, said Pat Leach, director of the city libraries.

The board has been considering seeking voter approval of a bond for a new downtown library. The city will probably be providing information on that project in early 2018, Leach said.

A city vote on the library expansion could be scheduled in 2018, she said.

Dickerson said she wasn't sure of an Event Center timeline, but there could be a vote in 2018. 

The results of the LEC poll do not reflect voter attitudes about a library bond, cautioned Peterson.

The library and the Event Center have different patrons who support, believe in and attend each venue.

Journal Star file photo 

Wagers, mostly on simulcast races, totaled $14.7 million at Lincoln Race Course in 2015.

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Lincoln senator calls for more oversight of Nebraska child welfare

A Lincoln state senator is calling for more oversight of Nebraska's child welfare system to address child sexual abuse of state wards and those adopted from foster care. 

The Department of Health and Human Services responded quickly, balking at the idea of more legislative oversight, saying that already falls to the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee.

HHS has already taken steps to address the sexual abuse issues, CEO Courtney Phillips said.  

Sen. Kate Bolz said Friday she will request that a special oversight committee be formed by the Legislature. And she will ask for performance and financial audits of the child welfare system. 

Inspector General Julie Rogers issued a report this week after a nearly yearlong investigation that showed 50 verified child and youth sexual abuse victims in a recent three-year period. That number could actually be higher, she said. 

The investigation also discovered cases beyond the 50 reported to the child abuse hotline that were either screened out incorrectly, or not investigated properly and so not substantiated. For others, officials just couldn't gather the needed evidence.

The investigation also showed attitudes toward sexual abuse of youth in state care that concerned her and her staff, Rogers said, including "problematic attitudes" among system professionals and caregivers toward child sexual abuse and children in the state's care. 

Among the 50 abused children and youth noted in the report, 27 were state wards and youth in residential placements and 23 were in adoptive or guardian homes. They ranged in age from 4 to 18 when abuse was disclosed.

Some children reported that the abuse had occurred in a foster home, in an adoptive home or when they were under state guardianship. Some were in the juvenile justice system or in a home licensed by the department or at a Youth Residential Treatment Center.

Bolz will formally request the audits during the first week the Legislature is in session, she said. The session begins Jan. 3. She will also introduce a legislative resolution to call for a special oversight committee.

"As a state senator and representative on the Children’s Commission, I believe it is essential that we move forward with increased oversight by the legislative branch to promote the safety and best interests of children in state care," Bolz said in a news release. "I call on my colleagues to join these efforts.”

Bolz said Rogers' Dec. 27 report illustrates unacceptable performance of the child welfare system.

Coupled with the inspector general’s Sept. 13 report outlining problems related to child welfare caseloads, workloads and workforce, and the recent request for significant additional investment in the child welfare system, Bolz said, it creates concern regarding its overall well-being. 

Phillips said there was no need for another oversight committee. The department's response to Rogers' report acknowledged needed improvements and it has taken steps to implement recommended changes over the past few months, including underscoring zero tolerance for sexual abuse of state wards. 

The department extended an offer to Chairman Merv Riepe and the HHS committee to brief them on the response, she said. She has directed the division of children and family services to issue an annual report on the sexual abuse cases identified, including new steps for identifying and preventing abuse.

"DHHS has been open to working with senators and will continue to collaborate with them to ensure our system protects the children in our care," she said.

Phillips said the department is also working with Gov. Pete Ricketts to review the division's operations, including its finances, the details of which will be unveiled in coming days. 

Courtesy photo 

Kate Bolz is a state senator serving District 29 in the Nebraska Legislature. She also is executive director of the Nebraska Association of Service Providers, a group of community-based disability service providers. Bolz is active in Tabitha’s Meals on Wheels program, the March of Dimes and is a member of the Lincoln Young Professionals Group.