Historical horse racing bill in peril

2014-04-03T10:00:00Z 2015-05-20T14:59:20Z Historical horse racing bill in perilBy KEVIN O'HANLON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

A measure that could allow betting on so-called historical horse races at Nebraska's thoroughbred tracks is in critical condition.

The proposed constitutional amendment (LR41CA), which would go on the ballot for voter approval, failed to advance from the final round of debate Thursday.

It needed 30 votes to pass. It initially got 29, but its sponsor, Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, changed his "yes" vote to "not voting" -- a move that allowed him to file a motion to let lawmakers vote on whether to reconsider the measure. He did so right away, but it was not immediately known when the motion might be considered.

Historical horse racing involves machines that allow wagering on the outcomes of past races chosen at random from a bank of thousands. Any information that would help identify when and where the race was run is "scrubbed" from the video. The machines would be allowed only at thoroughbred race tracks.

Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha led the opposition to the measure, saying the machines are nothing more than slot machines.

Supporters said lawmakers need to help the horse racing industry, which has been struggling for several years.

For a time in the 1980s, Omaha's Ak-Sar-Ben track was ranked ninth in the nation, with an average daily attendance of 13,655 and a daily mutuel handle averaging $1.8 million. But other forms of gambling, including the lottery, keno and casinos in nearby states, have taken a toll on racing. Ak-Sar-Ben closed in 1995.

McCoy noted that a similar measure was vetoed in 2005 by Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, who said: "Anyone who has actually observed these machines cannot deny that the machines are entirely designed to operate exactly like a slot machine. In fact, the patent for this device refers to the system as an electronic gaming device. The machines are designed specifically to provide the instant, quick-action gambling gratification."

McCoy also noted a 2010 letter to the lobbyist for the state's horse racing industry from Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning that said if the Legislature approved the use of historic racing machines, "there is a serious question as to whether such wagering would be permissible under the Nebraska constitution."

The attorney general's letter traced the constitutional amendments that allow parimutuel wagering in Nebraska.

In 1934, voters approved wagering on live races. In 1987, voters extended that to simulcast wagering on live races in Nebraska. In 1988, they approved simulcast wagering on live races anywhere, according to the letter.

"No intent to allow betting on historic races through video gambling terminals is evident from the history or language of this amendment," Bruning wrote.

McCoy also disputed the contention by supporters that the machines offer parimutuel betting, in which all bets are placed together in a pool and the payoff odds are calculated by sharing the pool among all winning bets.

Lawmakers passed a similar bill by Lautenbaugh in 2012, but it was vetoed by Gov. Dave Heineman, and an attempt to override the veto failed.

Heineman said then that it represented a new form of gambling and was problematic in several ways, including whether it was constitutional.

Lautenbaugh brought a new measure last year that included the requirement of a statewide vote.

Because it's a constitutional amendment, Heineman could not veto this year's measure.

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.

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