he Nebraska Supreme Court’s seven members on Wednesday heard arguments on whether three voter initiatives related to casino gambling at state horse racing tracks should appear on the ballot.
The initiatives would amend the state constitution to permit, regulate and tax casino gambling at the tracks, World-Herald News Service reports. Last month, Secretary of State Bob Evnen rejected the three initiatives, although their backers had gathered enough signatures to place them on the ballot. He said they failed to address a single issue as required by law. He also ruled that their language is confusing to voters.
One of the initiatives, which would use tax receipts to offer relief on property taxes, Evnen described as “logrolling,” or the illegal exchange of political favors. He also said voters might not realize that the initiatives could open the state to expanded gambling on Native American tribal lands.
Pro-gambling groups asked the high court to overturn Evnen’s decision. Their lawyers argued that the sponsors divided the plan into three separate initiatives so they would comply with the state law requiring ballot measures to deal with a single issue.
In a legal brief, David Lopez, representing gambling opponent Richard Loveless, described the collection of initiatives as a “fundamentally deceptive, multi-subject constitutional amendment measure.” “The underlying Constitutional Initiative, by its plain text, would have Nebraska voters believe they are simply authorizing the expansion of gambling at licensed racetracks,” he said in the brief. “In reality, it would additionally — and automatically — authorize full-scale casino gambling on tribal lands across Nebraska.”
Andre Barry, an attorney representing a pro-casino group called Keep the Money in Nebraska, said the statute states in simple language that “Initiative measures shall contain only one subject.” He said the anti-gambling groups’ lengthy legal briefs are trying to muddy the waters. “They spend 122 pages trying to wring new meaning out of those seven words,” Barry said.
Evnen’s ruling echoed the claims of gambling opponents that the permitting initiative — which ostensibly allows casinos only at a handful of existing racetracks around the state — would actually open the door to gaming on reservations. That’s because of a federal law that allows Native American tribes to negotiate pacts to open gambling facilities on tribal lands within the borders of states that permit them.
Barry argued that any new tribal casinos would still require governmental action, conducted in the open. “There is no hidden authorization of Indian gaming,” he said. “This action is a matter of public record.”
The Nebraska Constitution has prohibited games of chance since its inception in the mid-1800s. But over the years, amendments have allowed limited exceptions, including horse racing, bingo, keno and the Nebraska Lottery. If this set of initiatives were passed and implemented, racetracks near Omaha, Lincoln, South Sioux City, Columbus, Hastings and Grand Island would be eligible to host expanded gambling.
The state’s horse racing industry views the casino initiatives as a possible life-saver. Supporters have pointed to their own study, which indicates casinos at the six tracks would generate more than $300 million a year in gambling revenue and create 4,500 new jobs. For the initiatives to appear before voters in the Nov. 3 general election, the Supreme Court must act quickly, as Evnen faces a Sept. 11 deadline to certify the ballot.