Will gambling be expanded? Don't bet on it

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

So how are you betting? Will Nebraskans vote on gambling proposals at the November general election, or will the Legislature and petition backers once again fail to get the gambling issue on the ballot?

The questions arise because of efforts now taking place. In the Nebraska Legislature, supporters of a vote on casino gambling are only a few votes short of putting the issue before the people, while -- in cities across the state -- circulators are being paid to collect signatures on four gambling petitions.

In both cases, it's a numbers game.

In the legislature, it boils down to votes. State Sen. DiAnna Schimek from Lincoln made a run at it earlier in the session, but fell short of getting the more than 30 votes required for passage. Now, there's renewed talk of bringing the issue of gambling up again, with support for the plan voiced Monday by U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson.

While Nelson serves on the national level now, he was Nebraska's governor in 1992 when voters approved a multistate lottery. To this day, Nebraskans still wager on multistate Powerball pots, as well as assorted Nebraska Lottery games.

The question this time around is whether gambling in Nebraska should be expanded.

On the casino question, lawmakers started out talking about voting on whether to allow up to eight casinos in the state. But, as debate continued, the number of casinos grew progressively smaller, with only two casinos proposed in the latest bill. That makes the proposal less attractive to gambling supporters in western Nebraska. "What would be different?," the westerners say. "We already can drive to South Dakota, Iowa or Colorado. What would it help to have a casino in Omaha? We already have them across the river in Council Bluffs?"

As far as the initiative petitions are concerned, the main complaint has been how complicated and confusing they are. There are four related gambling petitions, and -- according to the petition sponsors -- all four need to be signed as part of a "gambling package" for Nebraska.

According to an article by Robynn Tysver in the Monday Omaha World-Herald, the first of the four petitions would simply allow a gambling law in Nebraska. The second would require that 33 votes are needed in the Legislature to overturn a state law passed by voters. The third and fourth statutory initiatives would establish gambling in Nebraska and set up the taxation scheme.

The main provisions of the petitions would allow: (1) Two casinos attached to hotels in Omaha; (2) Slot machines at racetracks; (3) A dozen slot parlors along Interstate 80; and video poker machines at bars and restaurants across the state.

The petitions backers have until July 2nd to get enough signatures to place the issues on the ballot. Will it happen? It depends on how aggressive the petition circulators get in the next four months, but at this stage it appears expanded gambling is not a good bet in Nebraska.

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