The Nebraska Legislature gave 37-5 first-round approval Wednesday to a bill implementing the voter-mandated launch of casino gambling in Nebraska while also allowing sports betting at casino sites and electronic on-site keno betting.
The legislation (LB561) would create regulations to govern Nebraska casinos at licensed horse tracks once they've opened. Casinos had been banned until voters approved a constitutional amendment in November to allow them. The new market is estimated to generate $455 million of gambling activity by fiscal 2022-23, as reported by Lincoln Journal Star.
Nearly $64 million of the resulting $91 million in revenue that year would be dedicated to property tax relief. Under terms of the initiative, which was overwhelmingly approved by Nebraska voters last November, 70% of the revenue generated by a 20% tax on casino gambling will be funneled into property tax relief.
Casino gambling will be authorized at six existing race tracks, including Lincoln, where a $200 million casino and hotel complex is in the planning stage. WarHorse Gaming, a subsidiary of the Winnebago Tribe's Ho-Chunk Inc., will partner with the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association in planning to operate casino gambling at the Lincoln Race Course, at Horsemen's Park in Omaha and Atokad Downs in South Sioux City. Casinos of some form are also expected to pop up at Fonner Park in Grand Island and at sites in Hastings and Columbus.
Wednesday's lengthy debate displayed considerable personal senatorial opposition to expanded gambling coupled with recognition of a legislative responsibility to implement the will of the voters. Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, chairman of the Legislature's General Affairs Committee, led the way to first-stage approval of a series of amendments shaping the legislation.
Key amendments to the authorizing bill provided for sports betting within designated areas of casinos while forbidding so-called "prop bets" on individual performances by Nebraska athletes. Purchase of keno tickets through a mobile device or electronic ticket would be authorized at the location of keno operations by persons 19 or older, a change designed to help protect a revenue flow that currently funds community betterment projects. Cities and counties had expressed concern about the potential loss of keno revenue that supports community projects with the broad expansion of gambling options, Briese said.
The minimum age to bet on horse races would be bumped up to 21, to match requirements for casino gambling and sports wagering. Briese said sports betting already was authorized by the language of the constitutional amendment despite mixed messages before the vote. Whether that confusion was "intentional or inadvertent," Briese said, "sports betting was on the ballot" when voters approved the constitutional change.
While the bill prohibits bets placed on the performance of an individual Nebraska athlete, sports betting on the performance of Husker teams would be permitted.
Two more votes are required before the bill goes to Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Casinos in Nebraska won't have to close during county fairs or the Nebraska State Fair under a bill state lawmakers advanced Tuesday. Senators gave first-round approval to a measure that would add casinos to the list of allowable gambling activities during fairs.
State law already allows wagering on horse races, bingo games, raffles and the sale of pickle cards during fairs, but not casino gambling. The issue became relevant after voters approved a ballot measure in 2020 to allow casinos at state-licensed horse-racing tracks.
The measure was introduced by state Sen. Ray Aguilar, of Grand Island, whose district includes a horse-racing track at Fonner Park that's expected to become a casino and the Nebraska State Fair. Without the measure, any casino at that location would have to close when the fair is open in late August and early September.