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Horse owners, racing groups not giving up after Nebraska court strikes down ballot measure

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — A ballot measure to allow machine betting on previously run horse races may have died in court this year, but supporters are already looking ahead to press the issue in 2016.

Horse owners and racing groups are pondering their options now that the Nebraska Supreme Court has stripped the issue from this year's ballot. The groups met days after this month's ruling to discuss their options, and will convene again in a few weeks.

"By no means are we stopping," said Todd Veerhusen, president of the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "We are not giving up on this. That, I can promise you."

While their plans aren't firm, supporters might try to place the issue on the 2016 ballot through a citizen-led petition drive. Backers of a minimum wage increase took a similar approach and succeeded in placing their issue on the ballot after a minimum wage bill died in the Legislature this year.

They might also try to reintroduce it in the Legislature next year, although it passed this year with 30 votes — the narrowest margin possible — near the end of the session.

Supporters are confident the measure would have passed if it had gone to voters, given its promise of property tax relief.

"We're going to back up a little bit, take a look at some options, and see what direction we should go from here," said Gene McCloud, a Grand Island businessman and race-horse owner who supported the measure. "But we have to fight. We have to continue to fight for our industry."

The measure would have given voters the chance to approve wagering on previously run horse races shown on video screens at Nebraska's five licensed race tracks. It also called for tax revenue from both live and replayed horse races to go toward education, property tax relief and a compulsive gambling treatment program.

Opponents said the machines would effectively open the door to casino gambling because they run as fast as regular slots and can be just as addictive.

The machines allow players to view background information about the horses' records, such as the winning percentage of their trainers or jockeys. They're scrubbed of information that players could use to identify the race, such as a date or location, or the names of horses or jockeys.

In its Sept. 5 decision, the Supreme Court said the measure violated Nebraska's constitutional provision against asking voters to cast one vote on two unrelated issues. The justices said the question of whether to legalize a new form of wagering didn't have a "natural and necessary" connection to the issue of spending tax revenue on education and property tax relief.

Horse owners and racetrack employees said they're concerned Nebraska will continue to lose business to other states that offer larger purses.

Tracks in Iowa and Minnesota subsidize their horse-racing purses with gambling revenue, which increases the size of the potential winnings for horse owners. That attracts more horses and trainers and creates business for suppliers of hay and feed, McCloud said. Voters in neighboring Colorado will decide this year whether to allow casino-style games at horse racing tracks in three counties.

Without the machines to help fatten its race purses, Fonner Park in Grand Island will struggle to compete against larger operations in nearby states, said Hugh Miner, the park's executive vice president and CEO.

"It's just a shame that the door was slammed on a technicality," Miner said. "But we have to accept it and move on."

Pat Loontjer, director of Gambling with the Good Life, said the court ruling helped avoid a difficult campaign for gambling opponents, who are usually outspent when issues make it to the ballot. But the ruling will do little to stop gambling groups from pushing the issue again, she said.

"Greed drives that industry," she said. "They will never give up. Ever."

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