Casino Measure Aims to ‘Keep the Money in Nebraska’
A group called Keep the Money in Nebraska has qualified three measures for the November ballot that collectively would authorize casinos in the Cornhusker State. Lance Morgan (l.), CEO of Ho Chunk Inc., said the goal is to keep Nebraska gamblers from crossing state lines.
A group calling itself Keep the Money in Nebraska, a partnership of Ho Chunk Inc., an enterprise of the Winnebago Tribe; the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association; and Omaha Exposition & Racing, Inc., has qualified three measures for the November ballot that would authorize commercial casinos in the Cornhusker State.
Lance Morgan, CEO of Ho Chunk Inc., told GGB News the goal is to end the hemorrhaging of money into surrounding states that have casinos.
This is the second time this coalition has gathered signatures for such a measure. “We tried before and failed,” Morgan said. “Covid was a major issue. We collected signatures last fall, thinking we would start in the spring.” When that proved impossible, “We decided to collect in May. That was a pretty tight wind-down. We had to step on the gas a little bit and put a bit more money and got it done.”
The group collected 475,000 signatures, much more than it needed.
One of the measures is a constitutional amendment that authorizes casino style gaming at the state’s existing racetracks. The other two are statutory. The first would put in place a tax system and the second would create a regulatory system. It would all be under the umbrella of the state racing commission.
The Winnebago tribe owns one of the racetracks in the state and the WinnaVegas Casino Resort in Iowa, however, Ho Chunk Inc. has no connection with the latter—only the racetrack. The original purpose of Ho Chunk Inc. was to diversify away from gaming. By backing the Keep the Money in Nebraska effort, however, it is returning to gaming.
In the mid-1990s WinnaVegas Casino Resort was doing well, but when three commercial casinos opened in Council Bluffs, Iowa, its market share was greatly diminished. Council Bluffs is across the river from Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha.
So by sponsoring racinos in Nebraska, Ho Chunk Inc. isn’t doing anything to hurt the tribe’s enterprise in Iowa. “We don’t have anything significant to protect there,” said Morgan. “We originally bought the horse track as a defensive measure, but Iowa has been so good at creating competition for us that we don’t have any incentives to protect it.”
Interestingly, said Morgan, several of the casinos that are funding the fight against the three measures have also been contacting Ho Chunk Inc. to work with them if the they are approved.
“The fact that we are Indian is just interesting, but there’s nothing tribal behind it,” he said. “It will be under state law. We would be just like anyone else.” Morgan has considerable experience in Indian gaming. He ran a law firm that developed tribal casinos around the country. His first job was as an attorney for a tribal gaming enterprise.
The amendment only authorizes gaming at racetracks. “We didn’t want a casino in every quarter,” he said. “Horseracing is struggling as an industry. A lot of people remember the tracks as a big deal. We can revive an agricultural rural industry.”
He added, “We did an economic study and it showed that $8.8 billion has gone from Nebraska to casinos in Iowa. We’ve done polling that show that sixty-four percent of the people support expanded gaming. Every state that touches Nebraska has gaming. The only thing that will change is that players will save on gas money.”
The racinos would be taxed at 20 percent, of which 75 percent would go to the state and 25 percent to local communities.
All forms of Las Vegas style gaming would be allowed—except sports betting. The reason, said Morgan, is “Nebraska has limitations on how much you can authorize in one measure. Having sports betting in there created a risk.” He added, “It could be made up later. People like to bet on sports, and we’re already betting on horses.”
Morgan added, “I think there have been many efforts in Nebraska to do this and we have been involved in several of them. There will be a lot of legal challenges. But getting people to agree sixty-six percent, across all parties—I think it’s coming. If I was an investor at Harrah’s in Council Bluffs, I would be concerned. If you divide that market one more way . . . and we will have the advantage.”
The campaign will undoubtedly be expensive, he said. “We already spend quite a bit of money and we have several million more planned. We are going to do what it takes. We’re a small state. We just need to educate people.”