Ho-Chunk, horsemen launch another petition drive to allow casinos, possibly sports betting, in Nebraska

August 17, 2018

LINCOLN — Nebraska horsemen will again saddle up an effort with Ho-Chunk Inc., to allow casino gambling, and possibly sports betting, at the state’s Thoroughbred racetracks.

An agreement between the two groups, announced on Wednesday, would seek to place the issue on the 2020 ballot and would involve gathering tens of thousands of signatures beginning next year.

If approved by voters, casino gambling would be allowed at racetracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, Columbus, South Sioux City and possibly Hastings.

Officials with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and Ho-Chunk Inc. predicted that their efforts would succeed, unlike a similar attempt in 2015-16, which ended with a shortage of signatures and a lawsuit against the company circulating petitions.

“We don’t quit,” said Lance Morgan, who heads Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development wing of the Winnebago Indian Tribe. “We felt like last time, we spent a lot of time and effort, and didn’t get a fair chance at it.”

Barry Lake, the president of the HBPA, a group of 480 Thoroughbred owners and trainers, said polling in 2015 showed that Nebraskans favored allowing casino gambling. But Lake said the consultants hired to collect signatures fell short.

“This go around, we will have a better petition drive consultant,” said Lake, whose organization operates simulcasting facilities in Omaha and Lincoln. Both facilities allow people to bet on races broadcast from other tracks and offer short live racing meets.

Lake and Morgan said that the exact language of the initiative would be worked out this winter and that the collection of signatures would begin next year.

They said that allowing sports betting at the racetracks — which is being eyed in other states — is being looked at.

Morgan, however, said that the 2015 petition drive was hampered by the fact that circulators needed to gather signatures on three separate petitions — one to change the state constitution to allow casino gambling, another to set up a casino regulatory agency and a third to decide how the proceeds would be spent.

He said that ideally, it would be better to condense the effort and seek signatures on only a couple of petitions. If allowing sports betting complicates that, then it may not be sought, Morgan said.

“We need to figure out a strategy to get to the next stage,” said Morgan, whose Ho-Chunk operation owns the racetrack in South Sioux City.

Ho-Chunk and HBPA officials estimated that Nebraskans wager more than $500 million a year at casinos in Iowa and other surrounding states. They argue that proceeds and tax revenue from such betting should remain in the state.

But gambling opponents have long argued that casino gambling drains money out of the economy and out of households, contributing to social ills. Past efforts to expand legal gambling in Nebraska have failed, and the leader of an anti-gambling group predicted that it would again.

“They couldn’t do it before,” said Pat Loontjer of Omaha-based Gambling With the Good Life. “I’m hoping that people of Nebraska are wise enough not to sign this thing.”

In 2017, Ho-Chunk sued the consultant, Northstar Campaign Systems, hired to collect signatures for the 2015-16 petition drive. The suit alleged that Northstar falsely overstated the number of signatures it had collected after being paid more than $1.29 million. Northstar has said it did nothing wrong.

When the company turned in its petitions in August 2016, Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale said he was stunned by the higher-than-normal rate of invalid signatures. The drive fell about 40,000 signatures short of qualifying for the election ballot that year.

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