Nebraska Petition Could Give Voters Another Shot at Deciding Commercial Gaming Fate

Posted on: July 1, 2019, 05:00h. 

Last updated on: June 30, 2019, 05:59h.

The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska is behind a petition that, if successful, could give voters there another chance at deciding the fate of casino gaming and that opportunity could arrive on 2020 election year ballots.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, also one of the owners of the Chicago Cubs, hasn’t commented on a ballot drive to reconsider commercial gaming in his state. (Image: Omaha World-Herald)

The tribe, one of two federally recognized Ho-Chunk Native American groups, is joined in the effort by the Horsemen’s Benevolent Protection Association. Among the states that have various forms of wagering, Nebraska is one of the more restrictive.

In the Cornhusker State, gamblers have access to horse racing, keno and a state lottery. Some tribal casinos feature bingo and poker, but that is a far cry from the offerings found at traditional commercial gaming venues, including slot machines and table games.

Nebraska shares borders with six states, five of which – Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and South Dakota – are  home to some form of commercial gaming. Even Wyoming, another Nebraska neighbor and one of the smallest states by population, has several tribal casinos.

Familiar Selling Point

Proponents of expanded casino gaming in Nebraska are using a page seen in other states’ playbooks: selling voters on keeping revenue at home. Earlier this year, Casino.org reported that the Winnebago Tribe believes Nebraskans spend $500 million annually at gaming properties in neighboring states and by keeping some of that money at home, the state could increase revenue by $50 million per year.

Still, that might be a tougher sell than some expect in fiscally sturdy Nebraska. The state once had a budget shortfall of $1 billion, but lawmakers there were able to trim that figure to $173 million for fiscal 2018.

Last year, George Mason University’s Mercatus Center ranked Nebraska as the most fiscally sound state “primarily because of its relatively lower long-term liabilities and pension obligations.” Conversely, Illinois recently passed broad gaming expansion due in part to a raft of long-term expenses, including massive public pension costs.

The average unfunded state pension liability in the US is almost $135 billion, but in the Cornhusker State, that figure is just under $21 billion, according to the Mercatus Center.

Said another way, it is often easier to sell a state’s politicians on gaming expansion when the state needs money. Some policymakers in Nebraska may think their state does not need additional capital and that point may be valid.

Politics Matter

Nebraska’s traditionally conservative political leanings are expected to play a part in the effort to get a gaming initiative on the 2020 ballot. A similar attempt was made in 2016, but that petition drive landed just 120,000 signatures, well short of the 450,000 needed to put the proposal to voters.

Gambling opponents successfully defeated ballot measures in 2004 and 2006, despite being outspent by wealthy casino interests,” reports the Associated Press. “In 2014, they challenged a gambling measure in court and persuaded the Nebraska Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional.”

Interestingly, Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, along with his parents and three siblings, own the Chicago Cubs via a family trust. The Cubs’ Wrigley Field, one of the baseball’s most storied stadiums, along with the Windy City’s other major sports venues, could eventually feature sports betting kiosks as part of the recently passed gaming legislation in Illinois.