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Nebraska senators kill bill to allow debit cards for keno

Updated February 24, 2017 - 4:47 pm

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska lawmakers killed a bill Friday that would have let bar patrons play more games of keno per hour and pay with debit and prepaid cards.

Senators voted 24-9 to indefinitely postpone the measure for the year. Gambling opponents argued that it would feed gambling addictions and exacerbate the resulting social problems.

Sen. Tyson Larson, of O’Neill, pitched his bill as a way to generate additional revenue for cities without raising taxes. Local governments have used keno revenue for a variety of projects, such as baseball diamonds, tennis courts and zoos. Without the revenue, Larson said counties would likely have to raise property taxes to maintain current services.

“If you want solutions, this is one right in front of you,” he said.

The bill would have reduced the mandatory wait time between keno games from 5 minutes to 4. It also would have allowed keno operators to provide electronic tickets instead of paper tickets. Nebraska bans video gambling machines but allows keno, horse racing and a state lottery.

With a 5-minute wait time, players could run through up to 12 games per hour. Reducing the wait time to 4 minutes would have allowed them to play up to 15 per hour.

Gambling supporters have introduced similar bills in the Legislature before, but its fate this year had been uncertain because of a new crop of lawmakers who defeated incumbents or came into office because of term limits. Lawmakers have traditionally resisted efforts to expand gambling in the state, and Gov. Pete Ricketts opposes expanded gambling. The keno industry supported the bill during a hearing earlier this month.

LIKE A LOTTERY

Keno is similar to the lottery, but bettors don’t have to wait for a daily drawing. Bettors try to select numbers chosen by a computer. They can pick up to 15 numbers between 1 and 80, and the computer chooses 20 numbers. The profits from player losses are shared by local bar owners, cities and the state.

Larson, the chairman of the General Affairs Committee, which reviews gaming legislation, likened gambling to betting on stock options or hedging as farmers frequently do.

“It’s not government’s job to dictate to individuals what they cannot do,” Larson said. The bill “doesn’t infringe on their life, their liberty or their happiness.”

Opponents said most of the benefits would have gone to keno operators and preyed on people with gambling addictions. Pat Loontjer, who leads the group Gambling with the Good Life, said the cost of gambling-related bankruptcies and family problems outweighs any additional tax revenue generated for local governments.

Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft said gambling addictions has many unintended victims, such as children who rely on their parents to feed and shelter them.

“This is not a victimless vice,” Brasch said.

The bill “steals more than money,” said Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a longtime gambling critic. “It steals self-respect. It steals family values. It weakens the moral fabric of society.”

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