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The results of a race on a historical horse racing terminal at Fonner Park's executive offices in Grand Island.

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.

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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