July 8, 2016 - 1:11 pm
LINCOLN, Neb. — A group that wants to legalize casino gambling in Nebraska moved one step closer Thursday to placing the issue before voters in November, but opponents are preparing challenges in court and on the campaign trail.
The petition drive’s organizers said they’ve gathered more than enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Workers for the group Keep the Money in Nebraska hauled boxes into the Capitol from the back of a rental truck and presented them to the secretary of state’s office for verification.
Spokesman Scott Lautenbaugh said the group collected roughly 130,000 signatures for a constitutional amendment petition to allow gambling and 90,000 for each of two other petitions that would specify how casinos are regulated and how their tax revenue is distributed.
“We’re very happy with the results,” said Lautenbaugh, a former state senator from Omaha.
Supporters needed valid signatures from 10 percent of the state’s registered voters, or about 113,900 people, to place the constitutional amendment on the ballot. The proposals outlining how casinos are regulated and taxed each required 7 percent of voters, or about 79,700 signatures.
In addition, the group needed to collect signatures from at least 5 percent of registered voters in a minimum of 38 counties. Lautenbaugh said workers met that threshold and got signatures from all 93 of the state’s counties.
Even so, the group is likely to face challenges from gambling opponents who have derailed similar proposals in the past.
Pat Loontjer, executive director of Gambling with the Good Life, said she plans to travel the state to urge a “no” vote on the measure in a series of town hall events and news media interviews. The state’s three Catholic dioceses have agreed to help, as have Methodist and Jewish groups.
Loontjer said her group is also considering a lawsuit to keep the measure off the ballot. The tactic proved successful in 2014, when the Nebraska Supreme Court struck down a proposal to allow machine betting on previously run horse races.
“Our goal is to build a coalition that’s truly grassroots,” Loontjer said. “We want to get the word out.”
Nebraska allows keno, horse racing and a lottery, but voters have repeatedly rejected video gambling machines.
Keep the Money in Nebraska had raised $1.25 million as of June 25, according to its latest campaign filing. The vast majority came from Ho-Chunk Inc., the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska’s economic development corporation. Ho-Chunk has said it wants to reopen Atokad Downs, a South Sioux City race track that closed in 2012, and operate a casino on the site.
The tribe owns and operates WinnaVegas Casino Resort in Sloan, Iowa, but Ho-Chunk CEO Lance Morgan has said the facility lost some of its market share when the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino opened in Sioux City, Iowa, in 2014.
Gambling with the Good Life has raised a little more than $25,000, according to state campaign filings. Last month, the Archdiocese of Omaha gave the group $12,500.
Loontjer said the group won’t be able to afford television or radio ads, but it does have public support from notable figures including Gov. Pete Ricketts and former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne.
Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale said his office has hired temporary workers to help sort through and number the petitions. The secretary of state’s office will then send each box to its respective county, where local election officials will confirm the signatures and report their count back to the state. County officials have up to 40 days to complete the process, but Gale can extend the deadline by 10 days.