"Historic" horseracing nears finish line; ACLU threatens prison lawsuit

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March 25, 2014 - 5:22pm

Sen. Beau McCoy, left, fights Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, right. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The Nebraska Legislature took another half-step today(Tuesday) toward putting the question of expanded gambling before voters this November. And ACLU Nebraska threatened a lawsuit challenging overcrowding in the state’s prisons.

The gambling question concerns so-called "historic" horseracing – that is, betting on video terminals that display previously-run horseraces, without information that would let bettors identify which races they were. The proposal has been approved twice by senators, and requires one final approval to be put before voters.

Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy is pursuing the unusual strategy of filibustering against it on the final round of voting. Tuesday, McCoy explained why he feels so strongly. "I think what we are doing here, and what we are potentially sending to a vote of the people, is a long, slow move to expansion of gambling in this state that will ultimately end up in casino gaming," he said.

McCoy compared the terminals used for betting on previously-run races to slot machines. He argued the betting they allow is not pari-mutuel betting on horses, which is legal in Nebraska, where bettors gamble against each other in a pool.

Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, sponsor of the proposal, disputed that. Lautenbaugh said bettors who use racing terminals are provided with the history of the jockeys and the horses. "If you can provide me with an example of a slot machine where you’re given the history of the peach and the history of the banana and the history of the pear, and that can give you some idea on which one to pick, you let me know. But you just fundamentally won’t understand what these are because you don’t want to," he told McCoy.

McCoy conceded bettors at the terminals are given more information than at slot machines. But he persisted in questioning Lautenbaugh over whether the result is pari-mutuel betting. "Is it a pool of money that is placed there by those who are wagering on that race?" he asked.

"On that specific race, specifically, no," replied Lautenbaugh.

Thirty four senators, one more than necessary, voted to cut off debate and vote on the bill. But Lautenbaugh wanted an amendment specifying that 49 percent of the money left over after regulatory expenses should go to schools, 49 percent for property tax relief, and 2 percent for compulsive gambling assistance.

That amendment was adopted, but because the proposal had changed, a final vote could not be taken Tuesday. Still, 29 senators voted to set it up for a final vote. When that vote is taken, it will take 30 senators to put it on the November ballot.

Also Tuesday, ACLU Nebraska distributed a report to senators threatening a lawsuit over potentially unconstitutional conditions in Nebraska’s overcrowded prisons. Citing previous court cases, the report says the state may be vulnerable for substandard health care, lack of inmate safety, lack of exercise, inadequate ventilation, excessive noise, and housing mentally ill inmates in segregation.

Tyler Richard of ACLU Nebraska said inmates in segregation are taking drastic measures to deal with noise from mentally ill inmates. "They’re doing things like putting paper under doors, in their ears to block out screaming and other noises – banging and kicking – of people who are in the segregation units," he said.

Proposals to expand mental health, vocational training and substance abuse services inside and outside of prison are currently pending in the Legislature. Richard said if those pass, that would diminish the chances of ACLU filing a lawsuit. But the report says sentencing reform may also be needed.

An attempt to get reaction to the report from the Department of Correctional Services was not immediately successful.

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