OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska's top elections official said Tuesday that he won't put three measures to legalize casino gambling on the November ballot, arguing that the language they used was misleading and confusing.
The decision by Republican Secretary of State Bob Evnen means voters won't get to decide the issue this year unless a court overturns his decision. Supporters of the ballot measures filed an immediate legal challenge, and the dispute is likely headed to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
"This was incredibly unfair and unjustified," said Lynne McNally, executive vice president of the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, a leading sponsor. "I feel that the basis of his decision was invalid."
Lance Morgan, the CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., another prominent sponsor, said Evnen's decision "denied the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of Nebraska voters who exercised their right to be heard on the ballot in November."
McNally said Evnen's office reviewed the ballot language for problems before the campaign started gathering signatures and raised no objections at the time. She added that the ballot language has been publicly available for more than a year.
Supporters of the citizen petition drive announced last month said they had gathered more than enough signatures to submit the issue to voters. They launched the campaign after Nebraska lawmakers repeatedly rejected measures to legalize casino gambling.
Gambling advocates also tried a ballot drive in 2016 but failed to gather enough signatures. Evnen said organizers of this year's drive collected the required number of signatures to qualify. But he said letters submitted to him from the attorneys of gambling opponents pointed out what he considers to be misleading ballot language.
"I'm trying to follow the law. I believe that I have," Evnen said at a Capitol press conference. "And I believe that ultimately, the courts will tell me whether I'm right or wrong."
The gambling drive was spearheaded by horse-racing advocates and Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, which poured millions of dollars into the effort.
But it also has several wealthy and well-connected opponents, including Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. The letters to Evnen were sent a few days before Ricketts criticized casino gambling in his weekly column.
Because Evnen made the decision to remove the measures from the ballot, state lawyers will litigate the case at taxpayer expense instead of privately funded gambling opposition groups.
The three measures would have changed Nebraska's constitution to allow gambling and created two laws to regulate and tax the industry. If passed, some of the tax revenue would be funneled into a state property tax credit.
The petition sponsors proposed three separate measures because combining them likely would have violated Nebraska's single-subject rule, which bars activists from bunching multiple questions together to try to force a yes-or-no vote on all of them.
Evnen took issue with one of the ballot measures that said casino gambling would only be allowed at state-licensed racetracks. He said the statement was "materially misleading" to voters because the measure would also allow casinos on tribal lands in Nebraska, even if they don't have a racetrack.
Evnen said another measure amounted to unconstitutional "logrolling" because it offered money for property tax credits, but only if the gambling legalization measure went into effect. He argued that the third measure was potentially confusing to voters.