LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — A state legislative committee remains divided over how many gambling casinos should be allowed in the state, and where they should be located, after a closed-door discussion Monday.
The Legislature’s General Affairs Committee discussed amendments to a casino proposal that would, among other things, bar any new horse racetracks with casinos — known as “racinos” — from being licensed in the state prior to January 2025.
But such a three-year moratorium brought some opposition within the eight-senator committee during the executive session. Such closed-door meetings are closed to the public, but the press is allowed to attend and report on the proceeding. The Nebraska Examiner was the only media present.
State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said the constitutional amendment approved by voters in November that legalizes casinos at licensed racetracks put no limits on the number. He said there was no reason to “stifle” the gambling industry.
“Really?” responded Papillion Sen. John Arch.
He said that he felt that voters approved casinos only at “racetracks,” meaning the existing six tracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus, Grand Island, South Sioux City and Hastings.
North Platte Sen. Mike Jacobson, who was just appointed to the Legislature last week after the sudden resignation of Sen. Mike Groene, spoke up for a proposed racino in his community.
No casinos west of Grand Island
He said that with no existing racetracks west of Grand Island, residents of western Nebraska will have no outlet to gamble in a casino.
One amendment circulated by Albion Sen. Tom Briese, the chairman of the General Affairs Committee, would allow the existing racetracks in the state to relocate. That would clear the way for a discussed move of the state’s only quarter horse track, now located in Hastings, to North Platte.
Briese’s amendment would also require an extensive study before the State Racing Commission could approve new racinos. Such a study would include the “feasibility and sustainability” of a new racetrack/casino and its impact on the local economy and horseracing.
The amendment also would establish a minimum number of racing days at the existing and new tracks. Currently, racetracks have to hold only one race a year, which has sparked criticism that it doesn’t help rebuild the state’s ailing Thoroughbred industry, which was a main argument in legalizing casino betting at racetracks.
Briese’s amendment would require existing tracks to hold a minimum of five racing days and 50 live horse races annually beginning in 2026. By 2031, existing tracks would have to hold at least 15 race days and 120 horse races a year. The proposal also sets minimums for new racetracks, as well as raising the licensing fee for casinos from $1 million to $5 million.
Kearney Sen. John Lowe urged caution, saying that California — a state with about 20 times the population of Nebraska — has only six racetracks.
Are six tracks enough?
He asked whether more than six tracks in Nebraska could be viable and attract enough racehorses.
Senators said they were getting a lot of lobbying to approve new racinos in places like North Platte, Ogallala, Gering, Norfolk and Bellevue. Some said they expected a filibuster against any bill they advance, meaning that votes of 33 of 49 senators would be required to advance a proposal.
Briese said he called Monday’s executive session to get more input on proposed amendments. He did not say when the General Affairs Committee might meet again to ponder whether to advance a casino bill for debate by the full Legislature.
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