LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska lawmaker floated a measure Monday that would give the Legislature the power to approve and regulate casino gambling with voters' consent.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus said Nebraska loses an estimated $300 million to $400 million in tax revenue that goes to border states that allow gambling, including three near the state border in Iowa.
"Whatever problems that are associated with gambling are here, but none of the revenue to treat the problems," Schumacher told the Legislature's General Affairs Committee. "That is uncontroverted. What is also uncontroverted is we can't do anything about it."
The constitutional amendment proposal would place the question before voters in the November 2014 general election. By itself, the proposal wouldn't authorize gambling. Instead, it would give future Legislatures the power to authorize and regulate games of chance.
Lawmakers could use the revenue as they see fit, but unused money would be divided three ways. Fifty percent of the revenue would go toward K-12 education, 49 percent into health care programs and 1 percent to a compulsive gambling treatment fund.
The proposal drew immediate opposition from anti-gambling groups, who say the promise of education and health care funding is a ploy to win favor with voters.
"We believe it removes the power from the people, and it is in an attempt to override what Nebraskans have spoken loudly on," said Pat Loontjer, director of Gambling with the Good Life.
Some lawmakers questioned the group's assertions.
"In your view, we as state senators should respect the will of the people, provided that the will of the people agrees with you," said Sen. John Murante, of Gretna. "If people go to the polls and say yes on this, then their vote was bought. But if they vote and agree with you, then they're the fountain of wisdom and we should respect what they have to say. I don't think you can have it both ways."
Nebraska allows keno, horse racing and a lottery but has resisted video gambling machines and casinos.
Four border states — Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri — allow casino gambling, which is banned in Nebraska. Supporters say legislative resistance to such gambling measures is costing Nebraska hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and the state already has higher rates of divorce and bankruptcy than Iowa and South Dakota. Critics argue that compulsive gambling worsens those social problems and others.
Nebraska voters rejected two proposals in 2004 that would have allowed casino gambling — one touted by Las Vegas casino interests, the other by the Nebraska Legislature.
Schumacher argues that a casino measure would have won approval if only one had appeared on the ballot, and he insisted Monday that Las Vegas casino interests "got what they wanted" with three Council Bluffs, Iowa, casinos concentrated along the Nebraska border.
Gambling opponents said the economic benefits of casinos are overblown, given the cost of regulating such businesses as well as the likely increases in embezzlement and other crimes related to gambling addictions.
Schumacher said the constitutional ban on gambling — enacted when Nebraska became a state in 1867 — was "approved by people who would roll over in their graves if they saw what was being done."
The proposal is LR34CA.