State chamber weighs in on casinos, says let free market decide how many

By: - February 7, 2022 4:45 am

A row of slot machines stands at Harrah’s casino in New Orleans. Three temporary casinos are now open in Nebraska with other communities, including Ogallala and Bellevue, seeking state permission to build. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — A political heavyweight, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, is weighing in on the sticky issue of how many gambling casinos should be allowed in the state.

In a 23-8 vote, the Nebraska Chamber’s board of directors voted Thursday to oppose any effort by state legislators to limit the number of casinos by geography.

The business organization has typically stayed out of gambling issues, and the vote was specifically about any geographic restrictions on casino locations.

The vote comes as a legislative committee is wrestling with whether or not to limit the number of casinos in Nebraska to the state’s six horse racing tracks or allow more.

Voters approved casino gambling in November 2020, opening the floodgates to casino proposals. Five  new locations have applied for licenses: Bellevue, Gering, Norfolk, North Platte and York. 

Sen. Tom Briese
Sen. Tom Briese of Albion. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

A bill now under discussion would require any new casinos, beyond those at the racetracks, to be at least 50 miles from an existing racetrack. That would bar new casinos in Bellevue, York and Norfolk because they are too close to existing tracks. One proposed amendment would make the distance 75 miles, except around the state’s three largest counties: Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy.

Dirk Petersen of Norfolk, a former president of the Nebraska Chamber, said now that casinos are legal, they should have the same free enterprise rights as any other business.

Government overreach

“I think it’s an overreach of government when they try to dictate where private businesses should be located,” said Petersen, a retired executive of Nucor, the huge steel mill outside Norfolk.

But a leading opponent of expanded gambling, Pat Loontjer of Gambling with the Good Life, called that kind of thinking “insanity.” She supports limiting the state to six casinos at the existing racetracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, Columbus, South Sioux City and Hastings.

‘Let’s wait a couple of years’

Bringing this kind of gambling into Nebraska is a whole new avenue of destruction,” Loontjer said. 

Let’s wait a couple of years, see how it impacts those communities and family and taxes,” she said, “and then see if we want to inundate the state with casinos.”

At a recent executive session on the casino issue, members of the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee, which oversees gambling legislation, appeared widely split on the desired number of casinos and whether there should be geographic restrictions.

State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, who chairs the committee, said Friday that he thinks the committee is veering away from the idea of a 50- or 75-mile restriction. Both ideas are associated with Legislative Bill 876, a proposal to regulate casinos in the state, including the number allowed.

In-depth study requirement

Briese said he doesn’t believe the Legislature can allow only six casinos but said it can provide “reasonable criteria” for any new racetrack-casino proposals.

The senator said that his committee is still hashing out ideas but that he thinks members are leaning toward requiring any new facility to do an in-depth feasibility study to determine the need for a casino and how it might affect nearby racetrack-casinos and the community. 

While some gambling opponents, like Loontjer, have called for a “moratorium” on new casinos, Briese said such a feasibility study would serve to slow down additional development while the study is conducted and while the State Racing Commission considers whether to approve new “racinos,” the term for combined casinos-racetracks.

He said that because voters approved casino legalization by such a wide margin, it appears they support more than six casinos.

Ho-Chunk to manage

Briese said he would also back regulations that require a minimum number of horse races a year and perhaps a minimum investment in a new racino. Legalizing casino gambling was billed as a way to save the flagging horseracing industry in Nebraska, he said, and he wants to ensure that is the result.

Petersen, who is involved in the redevelopment of downtown Norfolk and owns buildings there, said he supports the construction of a racino in his community.

A subsidiary of Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development wing of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, has purchased land for a ⅝-mile track in Norfolk, according to the Norfolk Daily News. The subsidiary, Warhorse Gaming, will also manage casino operations at existing tracks in Omaha, Lincoln and South Sioux City.

 Petersen said a casino will benefit many businesses in Norfolk, including restaurants and hotels.

 “People are going to go to a town that has a casino. If we don’t have one, we miss out,” he said.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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