Nebraska Sports Betting Bill Advances Without In-State College Betting Restriction

Nebraska Sports Betting Bill Advances Without In-State College Betting Restriction article feature image

Steven Branscombe/Getty Images. Pictured: The Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Nebraska lawmakers advanced a sweeping casino authorization bill Tuesday without an in-state college betting prohibition that would have prevented legal wagering on home games for popular programs such as the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team.

A series of votes Tuesday on several amendments sets up a final yes-or-no approval for the entire bill in the coming days or weeks. Once approved, the state’s six commercial horse tracks will be able to open retail sportsbooks as part of a “Las Vegas-style” casino expansion.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks argued her in-state betting prohibition amendment would protect Nebraska student-athletes, including Cornhuskers football players, who she said were already under extensive pressure.

The amendment would have allowed betting on programs such as the Cornhuskers football team or the Creighton Bluejays men’s basketball team only when they played in other states.

Opponents argued on the legislature’s floor Tuesday that self-imposed prohibitions didn’t limit existing gambling on college sporting events and simply funneled money to other legal or illegal offerings.

“This has been happening ever since Cornhuskers sports started in the 1800s,” said Sen. Adam Morfeld, who represents Lincoln — where the Cornhuskers play their home games — in the state legislature. “We might as well be getting the revenue and the proceeds that come from it so it's not at some casino across the river in Iowa or some casino company in Las Vegas.”

The proposal fell, 18-13, with 16 members not voting.

A separate proposal that prohibited in-game prop wagers on college athletes passed without opposition. Similar prohibitions exist in multiple other legal sports betting markets, including neighboring Iowa.

The bill now goes to final approval before the full unicameral legislature, the only state government with only one chamber. Nebraska’s 2021 legislative session is set to end in June.

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Nebraska remained one of the nation’s last retail casino holdouts even after other regional states, notably Iowa, embraced legal brick-and-mortar gambling. Aside from the 1993 creation of the state lottery, lawmakers and anti-gambling groups had thwarted nearly 30 years of gambling expansion efforts, citing fears over moral, religious and societal ills.

Gambling proponents reached a breakthrough with a 2020 ballot measure that voters approved by a more than a two-to-one margin, permitting six existing pari-mutuel horse tracks to open full-scale commercial casinos.

The referendum didn’t explicitly outline specific gaming offerings, but lawmakers drafting the follow-up regulatory legislation determined it encompassed retail sportsbooks.

With only minor opposition, lawmakers supported retail betting confined within certain areas of the brick-and-mortar facilities. However, Tuesday’s lengthy floor debate showed college sports betting remains one contentious aspect of a politically sensitive issue.

More than a dozen legislators testified on just Pansing Brooks’ amendment alone, following hours of debate over several additional gambling bill proposals, underscoring the enormous political interest surrounding the state’s largest legal gambling expansion in decades. Several lawmakers cited they still had reservations over the bill, and that while voters supported legal gambling, it was their responsibility to ensure a safe and fair market for Nebraska gamblers.

Online Gambling Remains Far From Reality

Lawmakers Tuesday almost rejected a proposed online keno amendment included in the gambling regulatory bill, again showing widespread voter support hasn’t dispelled gambling’s overarching controversy in the Unicameral.

Paper versions of the game have been played legally in Nebraska bars and restaurants for decades, one of the few legal “gambling” options previously allowed. Online keno proponents argued it was a necessary counter to dollars lost to the new retail casinos.

Debate Tuesday focused on the proliferation of an online gaming form, more so than its economic impact. Online keno opposition makes it that much harder for Nebraska lawmakers to approve online wagering any time in the near future.

Lawmakers have not seriously considered statewide mobile wagering authorization as part of the casino bill.

This will undoubtedly continue to boost Iowa’s sports betting bottom line. Iowa, which shares Nebraska’s largest metro area around Omaha, has launched more than a dozen online sportsbooks, including industry leaders such as DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM and PointsBet.

Nebraska’s sparse population outside the Omaha area means statewide mobile wagering in Colorado and a pending 2021 launch in Wyoming will garner little handle from Nebraskans crossing state lines to wager neighboring online betting markets.

Its own online wagering prohibitions will continue hindering legal handle potential, but in-state bettors will be able to wager on home games for its most iconic sports program.

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