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Nebraska Supreme Court to hear ballot challenge

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The Nebraska Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to a statewide ballot measure that could allow electronic betting on previously run horse races in which the recordings are scrubbed of information that could identify the horses or the race.

Gambling opponents are trying to disqualify the measure from the November ballot, arguing that it's unconstitutional because it forces voters to cast one vote on two unrelated issues.

The ballot language would give voters the chance to approve wagering on previously run horse races that are 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.

Gambling opponents plan to argue that 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, Pat Loontjer, executive director of Gambling with the Good Life, said Wednesday.

Secretary of State John Gale allowed the question onto the ballot last month, saying he didn't view it as a patently unconstitutional. Lawmakers approved the constitutional amendment for voters earlier this year.

If it does make the ballot, supporters from the horse racing industry plan to travel the state to pitch the measure to voters.

"This is a constitutional amendment that has been debated for two years in the Legislature and received overwhelming, bipartisan support," said Jordan McGrain, a spokeswoman for a coalition that's forming to advocate for the proposal. "Members of the Legislature thought this was something that should be decided by the voters."

Lawmakers approved the measure this year with 30 votes, the slimmest margin possible.

Supporters have said the machines would help Nebraska's horse racing industry, which has struggled for decades as other games became more popular and neighboring states built casinos. The betting machines usually resemble casino slots, which supporters say could attract younger players.

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.

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 also argues that tax revenue from the machines won't substantially lower anyone's property taxes.

Loontjer said her group is also preparing a legal challenge against the machines themselves in case the question is allowed to stay on the ballot and voters approve it.

The court has scheduled oral arguments for Aug. 27.

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