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Nebraska gambling measure gets big boost from tribal company

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The economic development arm of a Nebraska-based Native American tribe is once again pumping big money into a campaign to legalize casino gambling.

Ho-Chunk Inc. is bankrolling the petition ballot drive with nearly $1.5 million contributed so far to the Keep the Money in Nebraska campaign, according to state campaign finance records.

The campaign would allow Nebraska voters to decide next year whether to allow commercial gambling at the state's licensed horse racing tracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, Columbus, South Sioux City and Hastings. Ho-Chunk Inc. is the economic development corporation of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

"We're not spending this amount of capital because we think it's a bad idea," said Lance Morgan, president and CEO of Ho-Chunk and an enrolled member of the tribe.

Morgan said the measure would generate an estimated $80 million a year in tax revenue for cities, counties and the state, which could go toward lowering property taxes. It would also create jobs to offset some of those that might be lost during the merger of Omaha-based online brokerage TD Ameritrade and Charles Schwab, he said.

Backers have said the measure would boost the economy and prevent Iowa casinos from siphoning off more than $320 million a year from Nebraskans who cross the Missouri River to gamble.

"Any reasonable person who goes to the casinos in Council Bluffs (Iowa) knows that 90% of their customers are from Omaha and Lincoln," Morgan said.

A group that promotes horse-racing, the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, has endorsed the campaign as a way to revive the struggling sport.

Gambling opponents are mobilizing against the measure, arguing it would increase the number of bankruptcies, domestic disputes and other social problems associated with gambling.

"We're already in campaign mode," said Pat Loontjer, executive director of Gambling with the Good Life. "We're not taking anything for granted. We know it's going to be a humongous battle, probably with more money put into than anything else (on the ballot)."

Opponents have repeatedly derailed similar gambling measures in court and at the ballot box despite being vastly outspent, but Loontjer said she expects it to be far more difficult this time because public opinion has shifted. She expects the pro-gambling campaign to spend at least another $1 million before the 2020 election.

"It is truly a miracle" that opponents have succeeded up to this point, she said.

The costs so far aren't unusual for a statewide ballot campaign in Nebraska. A recent successful campaign to expand Medicaid coverage spent nearly $3 million, and a 2014 petition drive to raise the minimum wage raised nearly $1.5 million.

If it qualifies for the ballot, voters would decide whether to allow gambling in the November 2020 election. They would be faced with three different measures on the ballot — a constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling and two state law changes to regulate and tax the industry.

It's unclear whether any Iowa groups will get involved, despite the potential revenue loss for Council Bluffs casinos if Nebraska legalizes gambling. Wes Ehrecke, the president and CEO of the Iowa Gaming Association, said his group "has not taken any action at all" on the Nebraska proposal.

Some longtime gambling opponents have spoken out against the measure, including Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Nebraska football coach and congressman Tom Osborne.

Morgan said the petition campaign has gone into a "little bit of a lull" because collecting signatures is difficult in colder months, but he expressed confidence the group will get enough signatures by the July 2 deadline.

The Keep the Money in Nebraska campaign had a little more than $27,000 on hand as of last month, having spent most of the money on consultants, signature-gathering, travel and legal services.

Ho-Chunk operates a variety of businesses for the benefit of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, including government contracting divisions, real estate and housing firms, a construction company and convenience stores and restaurants.