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Nebraska gambling measures fizzle in Legislature

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – A push to loosen gambling restrictions has fizzled this year in the Legislature, despite claims that Nebraska could preserve jobs, generate much-needed revenue for counties and tap into the millions of dollars that are poured into South Dakota and Iowa casinos each year.

Lawmakers have killed a bill this year to let gambling outlets to run more keno games per hour. A legislative panel rejected a constitutional amendment proposal that would have allowed casinos within 60 miles of a border state, unless the border state shared some of its gambling revenue with Nebraska. And a bill that would allow machine bets on past horse races faces an uncertain future as lawmakers mount a filibuster to stall a vote.

Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher said gambling opponents have pressured lawmakers into defeating many of the proposals at a time when Nebraska could use the revenue. Lawmakers are trying to balance Gov. Dave Heineman’s tax-cut proposal with funding for child welfare, Medicaid payments for hospitals and nursing homes, and other state needs.

“The state is bleeding,” said Schumacher, who introduced the now-rejected constitutional amendment. Gambling opponents who have resisted the measures “are persistent, while the ordinary people who support it don’t have lobbyists out in the rotunda. But this issue is not going away.”

Gambling opponents say the economic benefits touted in each bill are overblown and the measures are an attempt to open the door to expanded gambling in Nebraska. They say supporters fail to mention the hidden costs, such as an increase in embezzlement and other crimes related to gambling addictions.

“Expanding casinos across the rest of Nebraska will not improve anything and will add serious damage to the economy itself,” said Loretta Fairchild, a retired Nebraska Wesleyan University economist. “The benefits seem pretty direct, but the costs are very indirect.”

Legalized gambling typically benefits out-of-state casino owners, but it saddles states with the cost of regulating the industry and dealing with crimes such as embezzlement and theft, said Pat Loontjer, executive director of Omaha-based Gambling with the Good Life.

Loontjer said the gambling industry deliberately placed casinos on Nebraska’s border, not only to draw gamblers from Omaha but also to bolster the argument that gambling should expand into the state.

“They play the jealousy game,” Loontjer said. “They’ve picked us off, state by state by state. We just say by the grace of God, Nebraska has been spared.”

Four border states _ Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri _ allow casino gambling, which is banned in Nebraska. Supporters say legislative resistance to such gambling measures is costing Nebraska hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and the state already has higher rates of divorce and bankruptcy than Iowa and South Dakota. Critics argue that compulsive gambling worsens those social problems and others.

Schumacher said three Council Bluffs, Iowa, casinos collect a combined $428 million in annual revenue, $321 million of which comes from Nebraska residents. Iowa, which has casinos located just across the river in Sioux City and near Sloan, collected $267 million in gambling tax revenue during the fiscal year ended June 30.

Lawmakers also are trying to block a measure designed to reinvigorate the state’s struggling horse racing industry by allowing bets on tens of thousands of old races shown on video screens.

Lawmakers did pass a measure last year that would allow a simulcast racing facility to stay in Lincoln, even if no live races were conducted, but the bill was vetoed by Gov. Dave Heineman. State law require facilities to run at least one live race per year to maintain their simulcast betting license, which allows wagering on races televised from other tracks.

The measure was aimed at preserving the Lincoln facility on the former Nebraska State Fair Grounds. The track’s lease expires Sept. 30.

Greg Hosch, manager of Horsemen’s Park, a track in Omaha, said the horse racing bill would save the jobs of people who work at the tracks and help an industry with deep roots in the state.

“You have those who are morally opposed to it, who say the sky is falling _ that it’s going to lead to slot machines and casinos,” Hosch said. “That’s not true. This is just pari-mutuel wagering.”

A third bill aimed at Nebraska’s keno industry died earlier this year, amid concerns that it would contribute to gambling addictions.

Its sponsor, Wilber Sen. Russ Karpisek, said the proposal would help counties generate additional tax revenue at a time when they’ve lost state aid. Counties have complained revenue shortfalls could force service cuts or property tax increases.

The keno bill would have allowed bettors to play once every 3 minutes, or 20 games per hour. Current law requires keno operators to wait 5 minutes between games, limiting players to 12 games each hour. Keno is a game where bettors try to guess numbers chosen by a computer. They can pick up to 15 numbers between 1 and 80, and the computer chooses 20 numbers.

While Nebraska allows keno, horse racing and a lottery, the state has resisted video gaming machines and casinos. Voters rejected a proposal to allow video keno in 2006. Two years later, they rejected dual measures to legalize casino gambling _ one touted by Las Vegas casino interests, and the other from the Legislature.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)