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Controversial betting machines could be headed to Nebraska horse tracks; some saying 'Whoa'

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Racing Commission rejected the position of the state’s attorneys in voting Wednesday to install controversial machines that take wagers at Nebraska’s thoroughbred tracks.

Commissioners voted 3-2 during a meeting at Grand Island’s Fonner Park racetrack to allow the machines, which are used to bet on historical horse races. The same board approved the machines in October but then nullified that vote amid warnings that the meeting had violated state open meeting rules.

Chris Kotulak, the CEO of Fonner Park, praised Wednesday’s decision, saying it would pump millions of tax dollars into state coffers and provide a much-needed boost to the state’s struggling thoroughbred racetracks.

“It will be the urgent shot in the arm to help the horse racing industry,” Kotulak said. “The surrounding states that offer thoroughbred racing all have additional gaming that supplements their purse money. They’re taking away the horses and trainers.”

Meanwhile, the head of a leading anti-gambling group in Nebraska promised a swift legal challenge to the commission’s action. The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office has said the commission lacks the power to approve a new form of legalized betting in the state.

“It’s a slot machine,” said Pat Loontjer of Gambling with the Good Life. “It walks like a duck, it talks like a duck — it’s a duck.”

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A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday that it will provide an “appropriate response” after it reviews the final order by the Racing Commission.

But in January, the commission was warned that the Attorney General’s Office would not defend the racing board if it were sued over such a decision. Assistant Attorney General Laura Nigro told board members that they would be casting an illegal vote and that only the State Legislature or state voters could approve an expansion of legalized gaming.

But Kotulak disagreed with that legal analysis on Wednesday. Dennis Lee, an Omaha attorney who heads the Racing Commission, has said previously that the commission has the legal authority to regulate parimutuel betting in the state.

They both point to Kentucky, where similar historical horse racing machines were deemed legal after a lengthy court battle.

“Even though the devices look like slot machines,” Kotulak said, “it is parimutuel wagering.”

Wednesday’s vote represents the latest chapter in a long-running effort by horse racing interests to expand gambling — and increase revenue — at the state’s struggling thoroughbred horse racing tracks.

Past attempts to allow betting on horse races that have already taken place have failed. They were blocked by a gubernatorial veto in 2012 and a 2014 ruling by the Nebraska Supreme Court that kept the issue off the state ballot. Recently, a new signature-gathering effort was launched to allow Nebraska voters, in the 2020 election, to decide whether to allow casino gambling at the state’s racetracks.

In historical horse racing, the identities of the horses and riders are changed to guard against bettors recalling the outcomes of old races. Kotulak said bettors can decide whether to be provided information to handicap a race and whether to watch the race or get an immediate outcome.

He said he expected that “hundreds” of the PariMax betting machines would be installed at racetracks in Grand Island, Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus and South Sioux City. Fonner Park, Kotulak said, might have machines up and running this fall.

“I’m certain there will be a legal challenge,” he said, adding that he did not know if that would block installation of the devices.

Departing President Bounds may take part-time role with University of Nebraska

University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds will officially leave Nebraska this month, but he’s not necessarily gone for good.

Some NU regents want to retain him in a part-time role, such as fundraising, consulting or assisting a new president.

“He has made some unbelievable relationships in his tenure as president here,” Regents Chairman Tim Clare of Lincoln said Wednesday. If the regents can capitalize on Bounds’ contacts, abilities and initiatives, Clare said, “we’re foolish not to consider that.”

Clare said Bounds’ ongoing involvement with the NU system could include doing some work with athletics, construction projects, proposals such as a new baseball field in Omaha, or developing a scholarship program designed to keep high-achieving students in Nebraska. The NU system includes schools in Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney and Curtis.

Bounds announced in March that he and his family would leave Nebraska in mid-August. Bounds, who has been president for 4½ years, said his next job would involve teaching graduate students at the University of South Alabama.

Bounds, 52, said that he was tired and that he and his family were ready to return to the South. A search committee and search firm are well into their pursuit of Bounds’ replacement. An interim president from within the NU system, Susan Fritz, will lead the system until a new president is named.

The president’s resignation prompted some speculation that there may have been more to the decision than publicly stated, but members of the Board of Regents have made it evident that they like Bounds.

At their meeting in June, the regents agreed to give Bounds $300,000 in deferred annuity compensation, even though he hadn’t stayed the five years required to collect a portion of that money.

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It’s not rare for the regents to retain a retiring executive for some consulting or fundraising for a while. Former University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor John Christensen expected to work on special projects when he resigned in 2016. He retired from the NU system this year.

Clare said that nothing has been decided about Bounds and that members of the board are exploring how they can continue to utilize Bounds’ strengths and compensate him.

“I wouldn’t expect him to work for us for free,” Clare said. “He’s done an amazing job in his tenure. And we’re exploring the prospects.”

Bounds said Wednesday through a text message: “I will likely do some extended transition work. Happy to help as needed.”

Regent Elizabeth O’Connor of Omaha said she appreciated “that Hank is willing to help out in any capacity.” Regent Paul Kenney of Amherst said he was aware of discussions about Bounds doing some ongoing work for NU.

“We’ll talk about that at the next meeting,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything concrete yet.” The regents will meet Aug. 16 in Lincoln. No agenda has been set.

“It’s a great idea,” Clare said of holding on to Bounds. “I think it’s a very positive thing.”

Clare discussed a variety of tasks that Bounds might perform and strengths he brings. Clare mentioned Bounds’ desire to enhance scholarships for high-achieving students, the possibility of building a baseball field in Omaha, assistance in athletic programs, advising Fritz and the next president, and introducing a new president to the region’s influential people.

Timeline: Hank Bounds at Nebraska

Senate votes 20-7 to advance Gen. Hyten's nomination amid sexual misconduct allegations

WASHINGTON — Gen. John Hyten moved a step closer Wednesday to becoming the second-highest officer in the U.S. military.

The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 20-7 to advance Hyten’s nomination to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a bipartisan show of support in the face of sexual misconduct allegations Hyten has denied.

“He’s a strong person for that position, and I’m excited he’s out on a good vote,” said Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., a member of the committee who supported the nomination.

Hyten is currently head of U.S. Strategic Command, which is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base.

Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser was a top aide to Hyten at StratCom, where she received positive reviews before being forced out over claims that she had created a “toxic” work environment.

After Hyten’s nomination was announced, Spletstoser came forward with accusations that he had made a series of unwanted advances toward her and sexually assaulted her.

Spletstoser has said that confirming Hyten will send a terrible message. In his confirmation hearing earlier this week, Hyten repeatedly denied that there is any truth to her claims.

In a statement provided by her attorney, Spletstoser said Wednesday that she was not surprised by the committee’s vote but that it was “gut wrenching” all the same.

She stood by her allegations, said Hyten lied to the committee and expressed a desire to testify in an open hearing.

Spletstoser described the Air Force investigation into her accusations as a one-sided exercise aimed at discrediting her.

“I deserve the chance to clear my name,” she said. “I knew coming forward would be incredibly difficult, but I never expected this.”

Hyten defenders include former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who revealed earlier this year that she was raped by a senior officer while serving in the military.

They and others have characterized the Air Force investigation as thorough and exhaustive — and said the inquiry showed that Hyten is innocent.

Seven Democrats on the committee voted for the nomination, while only one Republican member voted against it — Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa.

Asked why she opposed the nomination, Ernst referred reporters to her comments during the confirmation hearing in which she pressed Hyten on his handling of the toxic leadership situation.

“This leaves me with concerns about your judgment and ability to lead in one of the highest positions in the U.S. military,” Ernst said during the hearing.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee chairman, said he would like a full Senate vote on the nomination soon but acknowledged that it’s unlikely to occur before September, with lawmakers poised to leave shortly for their August recess.

Inhofe said he feels confident that the full Senate will confirm Hyten.

“If someone can accuse someone of sexual assault without any evidence ... then anyone can do that,” he said. “It could happen to anyone.”

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More than 2,300 Nebraskans with developmental disabilities on waiting list for services

LINCOLN — Erin Phillips has made great strides in the three years since moving out of her parents’ home.

The 31-year-old has learned how to do her laundry entirely on her own. She takes showers with only a little nudging. She cleans her own bedroom and bathroom.

That’s on top of working part time at a local grocery store and speaking out as an advocate for herself and other Nebraskans with developmental disabilities.

But the Lincoln woman could have been further down the road toward independence if she had not spent seven years “on the wait” for developmental disability services from the state.

“We wanted to normalize her life, we wanted her to be as independent as she could be, but I couldn’t do anything while she was on a waiting list,” said Mary Phillips, Erin’s mother.

Waiting for developmental disability services has been the norm for decades in Nebraska, despite a 1991 state law promising services for everyone needing them. More than 2,300 people are on a waiting list for services including job coaching, training workshops, group homes, residential services, respite care and more.

Now disability advocates led by The Arc of Nebraska have launched a campaign to end the waiting list and ensure that Nebraskans with developmental disabilities get timely access to services. The effort includes a petition and several community events.

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Edison McDonald, executive director of The Arc, said Nebraska needs to figure out a way to fulfill that earlier commitment and get services for those on the list.

“We’ve had senators promise and promise and promise,” he said. “We’re still waiting here. We’ve waited too long.”

State officials have tried to address the waiting list through the years and have made progress at times, he said. But every reduction has been short-lived.

The only time Nebraska eliminated the waiting list was in 1995. Then-Gov. Ben Nelson pushed a plan under which services were offered to everyone on the list as of July 1 that year.

But a new list began on July 2, and by the end of August 1995, there were 400 people on it.

The 1991 law promising services was followed by another that called for serving everyone by July 1, 2000. Four years after missing that target, lawmakers pushed back the goal to July 1, 2010. Nebraska missed the new goal as well.

The last major push to address the waiting list came a decade ago, after the Beatrice State Developmental Center, the state institution for developmentally disabled people, lost federal funding because of widespread and repeated care problems.

That focused public attention on the broader problems facing Nebraskans with developmental disabilities, which are defined as severe, chronic mental or physical impairments that begin before age 22.

In 2009, state lawmakers approved $15 million to help shrink the waiting list, which stood at 2,006 people as of June that year.

The current waiting list has 2,325 people, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. That includes 840 people who are getting some services, generally day programs, but waiting for others. The oldest application on the list dates back to 2012.

Courtney Miller, director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities in HHS, said the agency estimates that serving everyone now on the list would cost about $149 million, of which $71 million would be state funds. The estimate does not account for future needs.

That would be on top of the $341 million budgeted this year to serve more than 4,700 people with varying combinations of day programs, residential services and respite. That total includes $156 million in state funds.

“That is a factor we face,” Miller said. “We do not have adequate state appropriations to pay for services for everyone who’s eligible.”

She said a priority system, spelled out in state law, determines how quickly people can get off the waiting list. Top priority goes to people on the verge of homelessness or faced with a threat to their life and safety.


Erin Phillips, center, with Barb Fitzgerald, left, and Robyn Grotfeld at the Lincoln home where she lives. She moved out of her parents’ house three years ago and in with another family the state pays to help teach her life skills. Phillips does her own laundry and cleans her own bedroom and bathroom. She also works part time at a grocery store.

Fourth priority goes to 21-year-olds who are finishing school and need day services to maintain skills and pursue economic self-sufficiency. Others get services on a first-come, first-served basis when state lawmakers appropriate more money or funds are freed up by a person dying or moving out of state.

Erin Phillips, who was born with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities, received day programming after leaving school, including a job coach who helps her keep the grocery store job.

But she wound up on the waiting list for residential services. During that time, her mother said, she lost some of the habits and skills she had learned at public school, such as getting up and getting ready in the morning or making simple meals. She also got depressed and started lashing out in frustration about living in her parents’ home.

Eventually, the call came that Erin Phillips had reached the top of the list. She first moved into a home with two other developmentally disabled women, but their personalities clashed and the arrangement did not work out.

The next move was to what’s called an extended family home, where she lives with a family that is paid by the state to help her learn and practice life skills. The family also provides room and board.

“She’s much happier being integrated into the community,” her mother said. “We’ve seen tremendous progress.”

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