The Legislature is hearing about legalizing casinos again, and Nebraskans might ask to see the books before assuming that casino gambling would be a financial godsend for the state..
At a public hearing at the State Capitol on Friday, lawmakers were told that approximately $321 million of the money gamblers dropped at the three Council Bluffs, Iowa, casinos came from Nebraskans.
What if that money were lost on this side of the Missouri River?
A study for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce by Creighton University economist Ernie Goss in 2002 concluded that a large, successful casino in Omaha would have generated about $29 million in gambling taxes, 1.2 percent of the state's budget at that time.
Lawmakers were told Friday that the taxes Nebraskans are giving to Iowa via the Bluffs casinos are about $70 million a year now. But that's still a small percentage of Nebraska's $7 billion-plus two-year budget.
Iowa has continued boosting its number of casinos, now at 21, in a search for a tax-revenue panacea. But casinos haven't provided a silver budget bullet.
During the recent recession, Iowa state government slashed spending in order to balance its budget. It was just two years ago that then-Gov. Chet Culver imposed a 10 percent reduction for every state department because tax revenues were $415 million below projections. Around half of those $600 million in cuts came in education.
Nebraska voters rejected casino gambling in 2004. Before starting down that road again, Nebraskans and legislators need to take a hard look at the numbers.