Nebraska proponents of expanding casinos block advancement of bill pushing back deadline for impact studies

Nebraska proponents of expanding casinos block advancement of bill pushing back deadline for impact studies
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Proponents of expanding Nebraska casinos beyond the existing six racetracks won a round in the Legislature last week. They helped block the advancement of a bill that seeks to delay until 2029 a required market study on the impact of additional casino gambling on already-approved state racinos.

Under current Nebraska law, the state Racing and Gaming Commission is required to conduct a market and socioeconomic impact study on statewide horse racing and casino gaming, in addition to studies for each county that already has a licensed racetrack, before any new casino licenses can be issued.

Bill LB311 had been introduced by Kearney Sen. John Lowe in an effort to change the deadline to complete the studies, pushing it back from Jan. 1, 2025 to Jan. 1, 2029. The move would delay new casino licenses in Nebraska, although the Gaming Commission could choose to complete the requirements at an earlier date.

But proponents of expanded gambling won a round after the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee voted to not advance the proposal. Those against the bill include State Sen. Rick Holdcroft of Bellevue, who said it would be “unfair” to make communities like his, hoping to build casinos, to wait until 2030 to find out whether they can obtain a state license to build one.

The rule to require impact studies before expanding casino gambling was put in place last year with the goal to avoid market saturation, after a 2020 voter initiative legalized all games of chance at existing horse racing tracks in the state. However, several communities, including Bellevue, North Platte, Ogallala, Kimball and York, have indicated that they too want to be allowed to build casinos, and have expressed discontent at LB311 and its proposed delay.

In filing LB311, Sen. Lowe said the extension provided in the bill is necessary to ensure that the state has enough time to collect quality data. The earlier estimate for a Nebraska casino to be fully operational is 2024, which would give the state less than a year’s worth of data to analyze when contemplating new licenses, the senator argues.

Lowe, who heads the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee, told fellow members of the committee Friday that to get a full understanding of the impact of the new casinos, the study’s deadline should be put off until 2029. By that time, all six casinos should be up and running, allowing for the production of comprehensive market and socio-economic studies showing whether additional racinos would not harm existing tracks.

“We need real-world data,” the senator said Monday, according to the Nebraska Examiner. One concern, Lowe said, is whether there will be enough Nebraska-bred Thoroughbreds to field for required races at more than six tracks. “I’ve always said that Nebraska has six horse tracks and California also has six horse tracks with 20 times the population,” he stated.

Holdcroft led the opposition to advancing LB 311 from the committee to the full Legislature for debate. He complained that the state racing commission had not yet begun seeking bids from a firm to do the casino study, as per the cited source. He argued Bellevue has big plans for a casino and track and should be allowed to proceed.

The developer of that project, John Hassett, president of Aksarben Equine, was among those who testified against LB 311 during a hearing on Feb. 13. So did a representative of the Sarpy County Board. Testifying in favor of the bill were representatives of the already-approved Lincoln casino, the WarHorse Casino, as well as the state’s Thoroughbred owners and track operators.

Voting against advancing LB 311, besides Holdcroft, were State Sens. Jen Day of Gretna, Jana Hughes of Seward and Jane Raybould of Lincoln. Voting to advance were Lowe and Sens. Brian Hardin of Scottsbluff and Tom Brewer of Gordon. Omaha Sen. John Cavanaugh was present but not voting.

Given a majority vote by the committee was needed to advance the bill, the 3-4-1 vote fell short. However, Lowe stated after the vote that he’d continue to work on the bill and said that it would be “nice” to advance LB 311 this year, but indicated it could wait until the 2024 session, reports the Nebraska Examiner.

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