Nebraska lawmakers have passed a bill limiting the total amount of racinos permitted in the state. Legislative Bill 876 was approved on a 38-to-3 vote and now awaits Governor Pete Ricketts' signature.
The proposal allows the six current horse tracks across the state to launch casino gaming, as approved by Nebraska voters in November 2020. Meanwhile, it requires the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission to hold up proposals for new racetracks and casinos until socio-economic impact and statewide market conditions studies are finished.
The bill initially restricts the development of casinos to the six counties that already have licensed tracks: Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus, Grand Island, South Sioux City and Hastings. It comes as more counties began proposing their own plans for new tracks and casinos, which many believe could eventually lead to market saturation.
New tracks and casinos have been proposed for North Platte, Ogallala, Gering, Kimball, Bellevue, York and Norfolk. Their consideration is to be put off as late as 2025, depending on how quickly the studies are conducted. The bill strikes a balance between communities seeking to build new casinos, and gambling opponents who worry about venues saturating the state.
"This is a huge day for horsemen," said Lynne McNally, executive vice-president of the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which sponsored the petition drive to allow casino gaming at tracks. "This is going to limit the unfettered expansion of gaming in Nebraska, which is what we've wanted all along," she said, according to KETV.com.
Additionally, if signed by the governor, the measure would also increase the number of live race days and races a track has to conduct to retain its license. But the horse industry was not the only one to applaud the added requirements: opponents of gambling expansions also celebrated the passage.
"We don't want to see casinos all across our state. And that's why this bill that was passed is so important to help limit how many casinos and how much harm can be done by casinos in our state," said Nebraska Family Alliance Policy Director Nate Grasz, according to the cited state.
Meanwhile, proponents of new gambling facilities have expressed disappointment about the bill’s approval. "My job right now is to make sure that moratorium and that study move along as quickly as possible so we can all get back to work. And I think that's going to be the important piece for Bellevue," said State Sen. Rita Sanders, who represents Bellevue.
A new horse track and casino called Belle Vue Downs was proposed for Bellevue, which would now have to undergo the corresponding studies if the bill is signed by Gov. Ricketts. Despite this, project developer John Hassett said he remained optimistic, and that while the bill’s passage sets them back, it doesn’t eliminate the project.
Earlier proposals introduced to tackle the issue of an eventual market saturation sought to put specific limits on the number of casinos and the distance between locations. But Sen. Tom Briese, who proposed the bill, said the measure now passed was the best option: “I think we've truly reached a middle ground on this,” he said earlier this year.
“We have left the door open to the (new) proposals that early proposals would have shut down,” Briese said in March. In response to a claim that the western two-thirds of the state would be “shut out” for casinos, the committee chairman countered that it would be up to the Racing Commission to decide whether casinos in the region should be added.
Five of the state’s existing tracks are now moving forward with their casino gaming plans: only the proposal for Hastings’ Adams County Fairgrounds was voted down in a City Council meeting, held on March 15.