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Casino gambling push reaches the finish line in Nebraska; horse racing industry celebrates
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GAMBLING

Casino gambling push reaches the finish line in Nebraska; horse racing industry celebrates

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Casino gambling finally found itself in the cards as Nebraska voters overwhelmingly approved three constitutional amendments to authorize it, tax it and put the revenue into property tax relief. 

Nearly 2 of every 3 votes went for Initiatives 429, 430 and 431 that allow casino gambling at the horse racing tracks in Nebraska, including Lincoln Race Course.

Horse racing officials Tuesday night called the historic votes a game-changer for their industry that has suffered decades of decline.  

Riverboat casinos in Council Bluffs, Iowa, ultimately put Omaha's famed Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track out of business in the mid-1990s, said Lynne McNally of the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.  

"It’s sort of ironic that casino gaming will bring us back to those days," she said. 

For Nebraska tracks like Lincoln Race Course, casino gambling will help fuel more live racing days and plans are in the works to build permanent barns at the track in southwest Lincoln that recently completed a 7/8th-mile track. 

Keep the Money in Nebraska, which pushed for the amendments and received most of its funding from Ho-Chunk Inc., pitched the measures to voters as a way to help Nebraska take back some of the money it loses from residents who cross state borders to pull slots and play blackjack in states such as Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota and Missouri. 

Supporters project Nebraska could take in nearly $65 million annually by taxing the casino revenue. 

In addition to Lincoln, casinos are expected to go up at Horsemen's Park in Omaha, Fonner Park in Grand Island, Ag Park in Columbus, Atokad in South Sioux City, as well as Hastings. New tracks could pop up and include casinos.

Opponents of the measures, which included Gov. Pete Ricketts and legendary Husker football coach Tom Osborne, warned that casino gambling at Nebraska racetracks could also clear a path to online sports betting and expansion of casinos across the state.

Pat Loontjer of Gambling With the Good Life said in the 25 years she has fought expanded gambling, "we've never been up against a fight like this." 

Voters may have approved taxing casino revenue at 20% and sending the bulk of that money back into state coffers for property tax relief, but Loontjer said the social consequences of gambling will drive up taxes through increased crime, embezzlement and divorce. 

"The taxpayers are going to have to pick up that tab, not the casinos," Loontjer said. 

Ho-Chunk, which runs Atokad Park, would manage the casino facilities at several racetracks in the state, president Lance Morgan said. 

He believes the measure can help keep more gamblers from taking their money across the river to the Hard Rock casino in downtown Sioux City, Iowa. 

"It’s time to figure out how to get this stuff done,” Morgan said. 

Live election updates: Tension builds as polls close at 8 p.m. in Nebraska
Live racing returns to Lincoln Race Course with emphasis on passing gambling initiatives
Warren Buffett disavows racial tone of anti-gambling mailer linked to Gov. Ricketts

Election results

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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Local government reporter

Riley Johnson reports on local government in Lincoln.

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