Casino backer expects to open in Nebraska next year

BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
11/08/2020 12:00 PM
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Gamblers could see new casinos in Omaha and Lincoln by this time next year now that voters have ended Nebraska's longtime ban on the industry, a leading supporter said Wednesday.

Lance Morgan, the president and CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., said the corporation plans to spend $300 million to add casinos at existing horse-racing tracks in both cities and South Sioux City. The South Sioux City project could take longer because it isn't as developed as the other sites.

Ho-Chunk is the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

“We want to come out swinging with a high-quality, competitive product,” Morgan said in an interview. “We’re not going to slow down. We’re going to press down on the gas a little bit.”

Morgan said casino backers and the state's horse racing industry want to open casinos as soon as possible and then expand them to include restaurants, hotels and other amenities.

Roughly two-thirds of voters approved three constitutional amendments Tuesday to legalize casinos at Nebraska’s six licensed horse racing tracks, regulate the industry and devote some of the money to a tax credit for property owners.

Gambling measures won big at the polls on Tuesday, with three states authorizing legal sports betting and three others either approving or expanding casino gambling.

Maryland, South Dakota and Louisiana approved sports betting. Similar to Nebraska, Virginia approved casino gambling in four locations and Colorado expanded the number and type of casino games it can offer.

Morgan said Ho-Chunk should be able to open Nebraska's casinos fairly quickly, although any plans would still require approval from state regulators, which could slow down the process. In 2018, voters chose to expand Medicaid in Nebraska, but the program wasn't implemented until 18 months later.

The gambling measures faced stiff opposition from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who donated at least $250,000 of his own money to a newly formed anti-casino group.

In a statement, Ricketts said: “I have tasked my team with reviewing the ballot initiative and to ascertain next steps. Nebraska will respect the will of the people and the decision they made on Election Day.”

The casino ballot campaign also faced criticism from former Gov. Kay Orr, former Nebraska football coach and athletic director Tom Osborne and other high-profile conservatives. Ho-Chunk Inc. spent millions on a petition drive, advertising and legal services to defend the ballot initiative against a lawsuit.

Gambling opponents said they were disappointed but not surprised by the loss, given the amount of money spent on pro-casino television ads. They said they expect casino projects to sprout up quickly, but didn't rule out a lawsuit to try to stop them.

“We got clobbered,” said Pat Loontjer, executive director of the anti-casino group Gambling With The Good Life. “It wouldn't surprise me if they started construction today.”

Some voters interviewed on Tuesday said they supported the gambling measures because the industry already has casinos in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the Nebraska border. Iowa receives millions of dollars each year from Nebraska gamblers who cross the Missouri River.

“I supported those to help out with taxes so our money is not going across the border to Iowa for their gambling,” said Adam Byrd, a 29-year-old semi truck driver from Omaha.

But Christine Reisser, a 56-year-old retired teacher from Omaha, said she voted against the measures because of its potential impact on families.

“I think it is an erosion of a lot of breadwinners,” she said.

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