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Legal challenge to historic horse racing ballot measure now in Nebraska Supreme Court's hands

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — A ballot measure that would allow electronic betting on previously run horse races in Nebraska now rests with the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments Wednesday on an effort to kill it before it reaches voters.

An attorney for Omaha anti-gambling activist Pat Loontjer asked the court to keep the measure off the November ballot, while a state lawyer defended it as constitutional. The seven-member court will likely rule before Sept. 12, the deadline to certify it for the ballot.

The measure approved by lawmakers would let voters decide whether to approve wagering on old horse races shown on video screens at Nebraska's five licensed race tracks. It also says that tax revenue from both live and replayed horse races will go toward education, property tax relief and a compulsive gambling treatment program.

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 could identify a race, such as a date or location or the names of horses or jockeys.

Combining both issues — whether to allow the machines and how the money is spent — denies voters the opportunity to say yes to one and no to the other, said Loontjer's attorney, Steve Grasz. Opponents also contend that the measure's promise of property tax relief is misleading, because the machines won't generate enough revenue to substantially lower anyone's tax bill.

"Very little of that money would actually come back for property tax relief," Grasz said after the arguments. Loontjer has said the property tax benefit would amount to only a few cents per person annually.

Supporters say the issue was vetted by the Legislature and still requires voter approval. Secretary of State John Gale reviewed and approved the language, saying the issues presented on the ballot were related and he therefore didn't view the ballot language as unconstitutional. Gale still has to formally certify the measure.

"There should be some deference paid to the legislative process, and the voters should have the opportunity to decide the issue," said Jordan McGrain, a spokesman for the campaign that supports the measure.

Supporters have said the machines would help Nebraska's horse racing industry, which has struggled for decades as younger residents lost interest or flocked to Iowa casinos. The betting machines usually resemble casino slots, which supporters say could attract the younger generation.

Lawmakers approved the constitutional amendment for the ballot in April with 30 votes, the narrowest margin possible to place the issue before voters. If it is allowed to remain on the ballot, supporters from the horse racing industry plan to travel the state to pitch the measure to voters.

Gambling opponents such as Gambling with the Good Life say the machines would effectively open the door to casino gambling because they run as fast as regular slots and can be just as addictive.

Loontjer, the group's executive director, has said opponents are also preparing a legal challenge against the machines themselves in case the question is allowed to stay on the ballot and voters approve it.

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