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Atokad Horse Racing

Spectators watch a horse race at Atokad Downs in South Sioux City on Sept. 15. A Ho-Chunk-led proposed ballot initiative filed this week with Nebraska election officials would allow voters in the 2020 general election to decide whether to expand gambling at state-licensed horse race tracks, including Atokad.

SOUTH SIOUX CITY -- After rolling snake eyes three years ago, Ho-Chunk Inc. is making another big bet to bring casino gambling to South Sioux City and other Nebraska cities.

A Ho-Chunk-led group has filed paperwork with the Nebraska Secretary of State, seeking to put on the November 2020 general election ballot a measure allowing gambling at state-licensed horse race tracks, including Ho-Chunk's Atokad Downs in South Sioux City.

A similar effort in 2016 failed before even reaching the ballot, even though polls taken in 2015 suggested it would have passed. A Ho-Chunk-financed group turned in more than 120,000 signatures on petitions, but Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale's office rejected nearly 42,000 signatures, leaving the initiative short of the minimum requirement. 

Ho-Chunk, the economic development corporation for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, later sued the company it paid to circulate the petitions. In the civil suit, which is still pending, Ho-Chunk alleges Northstar Campaign Systems knowingly inflated the number of signatures it had collected.

Ho-Chunk President and CEO Lance Morgan is optimistic this time around will be different.

“We’ve got a new signature company we feel pretty good about, and we’ve got a lot more time this time,” Morgan told Indianz.com. “I’m a lot more confident that this initiative will be successful.”

The new initiative also will have simpler ballot language and fewer questions. After Gale's office approves the proposed ballot language, the Ho-Chunk-led group will launch the petition drive, most likely in May.  Ho-Chunk is partnering with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent Protection Association, a non-profit group that represents the state's thoroughbred owners and trainers.

If approved, the ballot measure would allow Las Vegas-style gambling at racetracks in South Sioux City, Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, and possibly Hastings.

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Ho-Chunk purchased the Atokad property along Highway 77 after the track closed in September in 2012, ending more than 50 years of live thoroughbred racing. After losing its bid to open a casino in downtown Sioux City, Ho-Chunk moved forward with plans to reopen the northeast Nebraska race track and eventually add a 6,000-square-foot casino, events center and large sports bar. 

Each year, Atokad offers just one day of live racing, the minimum required under state law for Nebraska tracks to simulcast races from tracks in other parts of the country.

"If there was casino gambling, we'd be able to race a lot more and afford to do it," Morgan told the Journal last fall. "Horse racing is sort of on life support in Nebraska, and if you can figure out a way to get more money into the purses, then more people will spend the time and money to raise the horses. It's a very expensive business to be in."

He argues Nebraska is missing out on taxes and proceeds from about $500 million that residents wager annually at casinos in Iowa and other surrounding states. If that constitutional amendment passes, Nebraska would generate an estimated $50 million in new tax revenue to help fund property tax relief, K-12 public education and the Nebraska Gamblers Assistance Fund.

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