SOUTH SIOUX CITY — After years of trying in vain to legalize casinos in Nebraska, gambling advocates believe their luck is about to change.
"In my mind, I think it's a question of when, not if" expanded gambling wins approval, Ho-Chunk Inc. President and CEO Lance Morgan said.
Ho-Chunk, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska's economic development corporation, has a lot riding on the outcome. Ho-Chunk last year unveiled its vision for a $30 million casino and entertainment venue at the site of the former Atokad horsetrack in South Sioux City.
Getting the project off the ground requires amending Nebraska's constitution, which prohibits Las Vegas-style slots and table games.
Over the last two decades, opponents have beat back a series of legislative and electoral efforts to overturn the ban. The last time voters weighed on the issue was 2004, when two different ballot initiatives were defeated after getting 47 percent and 36 percent of the vote.
Long-time gambling supporters like Sen. Russ Karpisek, of Wilber, haven't thrown in the towel. In his last year in office, Karpisek on Tuesday introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would ask voters this fall to approve casino gambling.
Ho-Chunk has two registered lobbyists working to advance legislative proposals like Karpisek's that would clear the way for the proposed South Sioux City casino.
Gambling supporters point out that every state bordering Nebraska — Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, Missouri and Colorado — has casinos.
Karpisek said Nebraska loses an estimated $400 million per year in Iowa, primarily from metro Omaha residents crossing the Missouri River to place wagers at three Council Bluffs casinos. The Argosy Sioux City floating casino also attracts northeast Nebraska residents.
Karpisek's bill would direct 50 percent of gambling revenues to reduce statewide property taxes, 25 percent to public schools, and 12 percent each to the state Game and Parks Commission. One percent would be reserved for programs to help compulsive gamblers.
The Senate General Affairs Committee, which Karpisek chairs, has scheduled a hearing on his measure in three weeks.
Omaha-based Gambling With the Good Life plans to fight Karpisek's proposal and any other measure to expand gambling as it has done successfully for more than two decades, said Pat Loontjer, who leads the grassroots group.
Loontjer said the measure likely would not advance in the short session that ends in April unless the Legislature designates it as a priority.
Karpisek acknowledged Friday his proposal faces uncertain odds because it likely would face a filibuster in the full Senate, requiring 33 of the 50 senators to vote to end debate.
A different gambling measure, introduced by Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, "stands a lot better chance" of passing because it won first round approval in the 2013 and is still alive in this session, Karpisek said.
Lautenbaugh's measure, which would allow betting on historic horse races via video terminals, would be a "good first step" for Ho-Chunk's South Sioux City project, Morgan said.
During the 2012 session, the Legislature fell one vote short of overriding Gov. Dave Heineman's veto of a similar measure that would have legalized the slot-like terminals at the state's horse tracks.
Ho-Chunk purchased the Atokad property along U.S. 77 after the track closed in September in 2012, ending more than 50 years of live thoroughbred racing.
After losing its bid to open a casino on the Iowa side of the Missouri, Ho-Chunk moved forward with the proposed casino in northeast Nebraska's Dakota County.
Ho-Chunk and the Winnebago Tribe were the majority investors in a $122 million casino and entertainment proposal that featured the historic Warrior Hotel in downtown Sioux City. The Warrior group was one of four bidders for Woodbury County's first land-based gaming license. In a split vote on April 18, the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission awarded the license instead to a group developing the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sioux City.
The $128.5 million Hard Rock venue is under construction at Third and Water streets, and is scheduled to open in late summer, replacing the Argosy.
Ho-Chunk also operates WinnaVegas Casino in Sloan, Iowa.
If Nebraska voters were to approve a constitutional amendment legalizing casino gambling in the November election, Ho-Chunk casino at the Atokad site could open as early as 2015, Morgan said. In a head-to-head competition with the Hard Rock, studies show Ho-Chunk Casino and Events Center could capture around 25 percent of the metro area gaming market.
In addition to a casino floor, the complex would feature an events center, multiple dining options and retail shops.
Under Karpisek's proposal, voters in a city or county in which a casino is proposed would have to approve it.
The city of South Sioux City has not yet taken a position on the expanded gambling issue, City Administrator Lance Hedquist said. The matter has been referred to the City Council's Legislative Committee, which is expected to make a recommendation by mid-February.