Senators Retain Electronic Keno, Advance Casino Regulation

Patrons are seen at Horsemen's Park racing track in Omaha, Nov. 4, 2020. Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, plans to spend $300 million to add casinos at existing horse-racing tracks in both Omaha and Lincoln. (AP)
Unicameral Information Office

A bill on final reading that would implement provisions of a constitutional gaming amendment approved in 2020 was narrowed Monday after senators voted to return it to select file.

Last November, Nebraska voters legalized all forms of games of chance at licensed horse racetracks through an initiative petition drive

Legislative Bill 561, introduced by Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, would provide the regulatory framework necessary to implement that constitutional amendment.

As amended on general file, the bill would allow individuals to play keno on an electronic ticket purchased at a licensed lottery operator using an app or debit card linked to a bank account. Currently, keno tickets must be purchased on a paper ticket with cash.

Lawmakers voted to return the bill to select file to consider an amendment offered by Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln to remove those provisions. Keno regulation was not part of the ballot initiative, he said, and including it would imperil passage of the bill. The Nebraska Constitution requires 33 votes for approval of a bill that substantively modifies a measure passed by initiative petition, he said.

“If (LB) 561 fails…we will have failed in our responsibility to put forth this regulatory structure,” Hilgers said. “I think that would be a black mark on this institution.”

Sen. Tom Briese of Albion supported the amendment. He opposed adding the keno provisions during a previous round of debate and said the bill was “far too important” to jeopardize.

“There is a perception out there that allowing electronic keno tickets is an expansion of gambling,” Briese said.

Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha opposed the amendment. He disagreed with Hilgers that the bill did not have sufficient support to pass, and said that without the changes included in LB 561, keno operators would lose revenue to newly created licensed racetrack casinos.

“This portion of this bill is designed to mitigate some of the harms that these businesses will suffer,” Cavanaugh said.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop also opposed the amendment, saying it would hurt cities that rely on keno revenue for community betterment projects. He added that he would not support the overall bill if the keno portion was removed.

“Ralston Keno is going to be 10 blocks down Q Street (in Omaha) from a full-blown casino where you can play keno on your phone,” Lathrop said. “It’s real for these people.”

The amendment was adopted on a 27-11 vote.

Among other provisions, LB 561 would rename the State Racing Commission to the State Racing and Gaming Commission, raise the legal age to wager on horse racing from 19 to 21, allow wagering on sporting events at racetracks in the state, prohibit wagering on high school youth sports, allow the use of credit cards to place bets, establish a process for allowing individuals to be excluded voluntarily from wagering, establish a system for filing complaints and classify manipulation of a game of chance or gaming machine as a Class I misdemeanor.

After adoption of the Hilgers amendment, lawmakers advanced LB561 to final reading by voice vote.

Lawmakers had previously advanced LB from select file April 20.

At that time, Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks offered an amendment that would prohibit all wagering on collegiate sports that take place in Nebraska. She said gambling on college sports places undue pressure on student athletes.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln opposed the amendment, saying that bets already are being made on Nebraska athletics. With LB 561, he said, the state can collect revenue on those wagers.

The amendment failed 18-13.

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