Horse racing goes down as Legislature heads to close


May 26th, 2011

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Lincoln, NE – The Nebraska Legislature has upheld the governor’s veto of a horse racing bill that opponents said would expand gambling in the state.

Sen. Russ Karpisek says expanding horse racing would generate economic development in the state. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

At issue was a bill that would allow continued betting on horse racing in Lancaster County for 15 years, even after the existing race track at the former state fairgrounds goes out of business next year. Supporters said since the Legislature voted to move the state fair, it should allow continued betting on races televised from elsewhere via simulcasting until a new track can be financed and built. Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, sponsor of the bill, said for him, the main issue isn’t gambling, but economic development.

“More horse racing means more jobs in Nebraska,” he said. “Why is it that we only seem to care about certain jobs in certain industries? Horse racing goes to the heart of our state’s agricultural roots, and horses need to be bred, fed, trained and cared for. Real people do these jobs, real Nebraskans do these jobs.”

But Scottsbluff Senator John Harms said 15 years would not be enough to revive the fortunes of the horse racing industry and make a new track economically viable.

“I’m here to tell you, in 15 years you’ll have this very same argument that you have today,” he said. “It’s a dead industry, it’s not going to survive, and why do we want to continue to have this argument?”

Sen. John Harms opposes expanding horse racing in Nebraska, calling it a "dead industry." (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

“I don’t support it, and I will never support it,” Harms continued. “And I’m sorry that it causes problems for people in the business and the industry. But it’s like anything else, colleagues: if you’ve got a business that’s not working, you find another job. You have to retool and re-engineer yourself.”

In the background of the discussion were constitutional issues and the prospect of expanded gambling. The constitution allows pari-mutuel betting only in “licensed racetrack enclosures.” Karpisek said such a facility would be built, even if it were not a “Cadillac” facility and weren’t used for 15 years, and would have to be licensed by the State Racing Commission. But there have also been numerous proposals in recent years to allow slot machines and casinos at licensed racetrack enclosures. In the end, the point was moot, as the attempt to override the governor’s veto attracted only 21 votes, with 23 opposed.

The governor’s veto was also sustained on another bill, which would have made $300,000 available over the next two years to make more healthy foods available in so called “food deserts.” Lawmakers did vote 48-0 final approval of a bill to reform the Commission of Industrial Relations, a measure the governor has said he will sign. Thursday is now scheduled to be the last day of this year’s legislative session.

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