LINCOLN — Historic horse racing galloped back into the Nebraska Legislature on Wednesday before floor debate promptly slowed it to a trot.
Lawmakers took up a proposed constitutional amendment that would ask Nebraska voters to approve wagering on prerecorded horse races that are replayed on video terminals. It renewed an intense battle from last year that pitted those who want to help the hobbled horse-racing industry against those who oppose gambling and its social ills.
Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy filed a motion to send the proposed amendment back to the General Affairs Committee, calling it a “trojan horse” for a companion bill that would legalize the video machines. He also called the proposed amendment itself flawed.
“It's poorly written and constitutionally suspect,” he said. “It does not pass muster as a true constitutional amendment.”
McCoy said he had no objection to live horse racing, but he considers the historic race terminals an expansion of gambling. Under the Nebraska Constitution, only the citizens can approve new forms of wagering.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a longtime gambling opponent, announced he will try to ride the horse-racing amendment into the ground. He filed six amendments that he said are intended to kill the resolution.
“It's going to be a bare-knuckles discussion,” Chambers said, warning supporters they will need 33 votes to advance the resolution.
Sometime next week, after eight hours of debate, supporters of the measure can ask for a vote to end the filibuster. But if they get fewer than 33 votes, the bill goes to the end of the line and may not come up again before the session concludes in early June.
The Legislature has considered historic horse racing three times in the past five years. Last year, a majority of lawmakers passed a bill legalizing the machines, but came up one short of the 30 votes needed to override Gov. Dave Heineman's veto.
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, who led the historic horse racing effort last year, has sponsored Legislative Resolution 41CA this legislative session. It seeks to allow voters to decide the issue in the 2014 general election. Lautenbaugh also introduced Legislative Bill 590, which would legalize the video machines.
Lautenbaugh said if his colleagues put the amendment on the ballot, he won't proceed with the bill to legalize the video terminals. The important thing is to offer some type of hope for an industry that represents a seven-decade tradition in Nebraska.
“There are literally thousands of Nebraskans who depend on these jobs,” he said. “We saw hundreds of them here last year filling the galleries, saying, 'Please help us save our jobs.'”
Critics say the historic horse-racing machines, with their flashing lights and video screens mounted in stand-up consoles, look and function like video slots. But supporters say they are pari-mutuel devices, a permitted form of gambling in which the bets are pooled then distributed to the winners, minus a cut for the track.
A manufacturer of the machines brought a model to the State Capitol so senators could judge for themselves. On one setting, the entire race is replayed. But another setting shows just the stretch run while a third shows only the photo finish.
Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff said if the tracks needs something akin to video slots to survive, it's time to let horse racing ride into the sunset.
“It is an industry that can't survive on its own,” he said.
Chambers said he isn't concerned about the constitutional issues as much as the consequences of compulsive gambling. He alluded to former Omaha Sen. Brenda Council, who was charged last year with spending $63,000 in campaign donations at casinos. She eventually pleaded guilty to a pair of misdemeanors in the case before losing her seat to Chambers.
Chambers urged his colleagues to help him defeat the proposed amendment.
“Are there 16 citizens, stalwart and righteous, who will stand firm and push back against this wickedness of gambling?” he asked.
To some of the veteran senators, the debate must feel more like riding a merry-go-round than sitting in the grandstand of a horse track. Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said he supports letting voters decide the issue.
“Let's make a policy decision once and for all,” he said, “because I don't want to deal with this next year and the year after that and the year after that.”
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A historic horse race video terminal in action
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