Nebraska Voters Approve Casino Ballot Measures, Perhaps To Western Iowa Casinos’ Chagrin

Written By Derek Helling on November 4, 2020 - Last Updated on July 27, 2021

The days are numbered for western Iowa casinos that see a lot of action from Nebraska gamblers. Gambling proponents harvested a winning Nebraska casino vote on Tuesday.

In what the Omaha World-Herald called a victory by a “healthy margin,” Nebraskans gave the green light for racetracks to convert to “racinos.”

Now the work toward that end begins.

Details of Nebraska casino vote

Nearly 65% of voters approved the three initiatives that amend the NE constitution to allow casino games at six racetracks. Those cities are:

  • Columbus
  • Grand Island
  • Hastings
  • Lincoln
  • Omaha
  • South Sioux City

It’s the near culmination of months of work and a lot of political drama in the state. The movement began as a petition drive during the summer. NE law has a provision that allows citizens to amend the constitution without the legislature.

NE Secretary of State Bob Evnen initially refused to certify the petitions, arguing the language was misleading. However, the group behind the petitions, Keep The Money In Nebraska, filed suit against Evnen and won.

After that victory at the Nebraska Supreme Court, anti-gambling operators enlisted high-profile individuals in the state to sway the vote their way. That included Gov. Pete Ricketts and former University of Nebraska head football Tom Osborne.

Despite those efforts, NE voters made their voices heard on Tuesday. The next steps will create a new dynamic for Iowa casinos near the Nebraska border, including Ameristar Casino and Horseshoe Casino.

How soon will casinos open in Nebraska?

Right now, that’s uncertain. Nebraska’s unicameral legislature will need to draw up regulations for the new forms of gambling, for one thing.

In addition, the racetracks need to build out their new gaming spaces. It’s unclear how quickly the racing operators in those six cities will start construction, as they may hold off on much of that process until there is a firm understanding of the Nebraska gaming rules.

However, when the day comes, IA casinos in border cities, such as Sioux City and Council Bluffs, will have new competition. They will still hold one advantage over their new foes, for now, anyway.

Could this be a precursor to legal sports betting in NE?

For the foreseeable future, casinos in IA will still offer sports betting while their counterparts in IA won’t have the same amenity to tout. Given the opposition to gambling expansion in the state’s political leadership, a legislative change to that status quo in NE seems unlikely anytime soon.

There’s nothing to stop another petition drive and vote to amend the constitution further, however. IA sportsbooks have pulled a significant amount of handle from Nebraskans crossing the border, so again, the idea that the state is sending tax dollars to IA would have some merit.

There would be no guarantee that a future vote on another round of gambling expansion would succeed, especially if it happened soon. For now, gambling has won a major victory in NE.

Photo by AP Photo / Nati Harnik
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a lead writer for PlayUSA and the manager of BetHer. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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