The South Dakota Senate on Monday torpedoed a legislative push to break Deadwood’s commercial casino monopoly in the state and authorize a casino in Yankton.

Yankton casino

Bernie Hunhoff, CEO of Yankton Area Progressive Growth, says his group is currently considering whether to begin circulating petitions in an effort to gather signatures for the ballot. (Image YouTube)

Bill SJR5 would have established a statewide referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the licensing of a casino in the city of 23,000 on the southern border with Nebraska. It was defeated 22-13 by a vote on the Senate floor.

The bill may be dead in the water, but there’s still hope for the casino’s proponents, who could launch a signature-gathering campaign to force the issue onto the ballot. Their proposal is that the license would be held by a non-profit entity selected by Yankton City Commission, which would lease the casino to a private company to operate — a model that has worked effectively in neighboring Iowa.

Proponents of the project — working title “Port Yankton” — believe it would bring a much-needed economic shot in the arm to the city, while at the same time contributing millions of dollars to the state.

Legislature Passed the Buck

Bernie Hunhoff, CEO of Yankton Area Progressive Growth (YAPG), which is lobbying for the casino, told Yankton radio station KYNT that his group is now mulling a signature-gathering campaign.

“I’m sure our committee will have to get together and decide, to try and figure out what exactly did happen in [the state capital] Pierre and what the message is,” said Hunhoff, himself a former state lawmaker. “And then we’ll make the decision on whether or not to go to petitions, which I think has always been the main route you would [like to] get something on the ballot.”

It was just an easy vote for the legislature to say, ‘Yeah, I like what you’re doing, but why don’t you just go get signatures?’” he added. “In fact, that’s what some of the lobbyists who were against us were suggesting: ‘If Yankton wants to do it, fine, but just make them go get signatures.’”

Sports Betting Still Alive

South Dakota voters may well be receptive to the idea of the new casino, just as they were in 1988 when they authorized gaming in Deadwood — a decision that was transformative for the city.

If YAPG does go down that route, it will have to collect unique signatures from around 17,000 registered voters by November– which is equal to five percent of the total vote governor received at the last gubernatorial election — in order to get on the 2020 ballot.

The legislature is currently mulling whether to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would legalize sports betting in Deadwood casinos. The amendment was passed by the Senate earlier this month and is currently with the House for consideration.