Big-name conservatives rally against Nebraska casino measure

The Associated Press

In November, voters will decide whether to allow casinos at state-licensed race tracks in several Nebraska cities

Grant Schulte
Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. — Some of the biggest conservative names in Nebraska politics lined up Monday against ballot measures to legalize casinos, which they argue would fuel an increase in gambling addictions and related social problems.

Voters will decide next month whether to allow casinos at state-licensed race tracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, Columbus and South Sioux City. In-person, early voting for the general election started Monday.

Opponents of the legalization measure drew vocal support from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, former Gov. Kay Orr, former Nebraska football coach U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne, and a handful of state lawmakers. 

"We feel that these initiatives are certain to damage that quality of living," Osborne said. He said the people affected most "will be the family, spouses and children of those have a gambling problem."

Backers argue that the three measures, which would legalize, tax and regulate the industry, would create jobs and a new source of state tax revenue.

Opponents tried to keep the issue off the ballot with a lawsuit in September, but the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the question can go to voters.

Ricketts said Nebraskans are generally prudent, fiscally responsible and take care of their families, and "casino gambling is opposed to all of those values."

He pointed to the high-profile cases of former state Sen. Brenda Council, a lawyer who pleaded guilty in 2012 to misdemeanor charges, lost her reelection bid and was disbarred after she admitted to using campaign money to gamble at casinos. Ricketts also cited a Lincoln pharmacist who was sentenced to prison in 2016 for defrauding the Medicaid system out of $14.4 million so he could gamble.

"We already fight gambling addition here in our state," Ricketts said. "This will make it so much worse."

Backers counter that Nebraska already has gambling-related problems because of the legal casinos in neighboring Iowa, just a short drive from Omaha across the Missouri River. The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska recently opened a casino in Carter Lake, a town that's technically a part of Iowa but is located on the western side of the Missouri River and surrounded by Omaha.

A call to the pro-casino group Keep the Money in Nebraska wasn't immediately returned Monday.

Supporters also say casinos will create jobs and help the state's struggling horse-racing industry. The main group behind the ballot campaign is Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, which has worked on other job-creation projects in Nebraska and Iowa.

Pat Loontjer, executive director of the anti-casino group Gambling with the Good Life, said she expects to be outspent by gambling supporters but still plan to campaign against it. The group successfully derailed similar ballot measures in the early 2000s.

Nate Grasz, policy director of the Nebraska Family Alliance, said he's concerned that casinos will exploit low-income residents, who make up a large portion of the industry's customer base.

"We cannot protect the poor and vulnerable in our state while simultaneously inviting in an industry that relies on blatantly exploiting the poor and the vulnerable," he said.

Former Republican Govs. Dave Heineman and Mike Johanns and Democratic Gov. Bob Kerrey have also voiced opposition to casino gambling.

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