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Long-elusive casino gambling on the ballot in Nebraska

By MARGERY A. BECK Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — President Donald Trump is expected to win Nebraska’s statewide vote easily, but Election Day will also decide other issues, including ballot questions on casino gambling, payday lending and the removal of slavery language from the state constitution. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., except for far western parts of the state, where voting will begin and end an hour earlier.

CASINO GAMBLING

After decades of rejecting casino gambling, Nebraska voters are again being asked to decide whether to allow it, this time at state-licensed horse racing tracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, Columbus and South Sioux City.

The Nebraska Constitution prohibits casino gambling, and the state has a long history of rejecting efforts to allow slot machines and table-gambling. Voters this year are being asked to change the state constitution to allow gambling and create two laws to regulate and tax the industry.

Opponents argue it would lead to social ills such as crime and bankruptcy fueled by gambling addiction. Supporters say those problems already exist in Nebraska because of easy access to neighboring states’ casinos, and that legalizing casinos in Nebraska would create jobs and a new source of state tax revenue.

PRESIDENTIAL RACE

Conservative Nebraska is typically one of the safest locks for Republican presidential nominees, who have not lost the statewide popular vote since Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson carried it in 1964.

But while this year’s statewide vote will no doubt go to Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden has a chance of winning in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, meaning one of Nebraska’s five Electoral College votes could go to the Democrat.

Nebraska is one of two states — the other is Maine — that allows electoral votes to be split. Nebraska’s 2nd District encompasses Omaha and its suburbs as well as Offutt Air Force Base to the south. Polling shows a competitive race between Biden and Trump in the district, while the president is far ahead statewide.

Since adopting the system in 1991, Nebraska has split its electoral votes only once: In 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama won the 2nd District on his way to the presidency.

CONGRESS

The 2nd District is also typically home to Nebraska’s most competitive congressional race. That’s certainly true this year, as Republican Rep. Don Bacon seeks reelection against Democrat Kara Eastman in a repeat of the 2018 race won narrowly by Bacon.

The state’s two other House races are expected to go to the Republican incumbents, both of whom have held those seats for well over a decade. Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry enjoys an advantage over Democratic challenger Kate Bolz in the 1st District. In Nebraska’s rural, deeply Republican 3rd District, U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith is all but certain to coast to reelection over Democratic challenger Mark Elworth Jr.

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse is expected to easily win a second term in a race marked by controversy surrounding Democrat Chris Janicek, an Omaha cupcake bakery owner. Janicek has come under fire from his own party for sending sexually explicit texts about a female campaign worker in a group text message.

The Nebraska Democratic Party spent months trying to force Janicek out of the race, but state law does not allow them to remove his name from the ballot without his permission. The party eventually endorsed longtime party activist Preston Love Jr. as a write-in candidate.

PAYDAY LENDING

Another ballot measure takes aim at so-called payday lenders. The proposal seeks to cap the annual interest rate on payday loans at 36%.

If approved, that would change current state law that now allows lenders to charge as much as 404% annually. Supporters of the measure say such high rates victimize low-income people and those who do not understand lending requirements.

Industry officials counter that those high rates are misleading because most loans are short-term and that capping the interest rate will put them out of business.

SLAVERY BAN

Nebraska is one of several states taking on ballot measures in a climate of racial strife this election. Voters will decide a proposal that would strip language from Nebraska’s state constitution that provides an exemption to its ban on slavery.

The proposal would eliminate a passage in the state constitution, dating from the 19th century, that allows slavery as punishment for a crime. There is no organized opposition to the measure, which advanced through the Legislature this year on a unanimous vote.

One other state — Utah — is considering a nearly identical measure.

GOP LEGISLATIVE DIVIDE

A hotly contested race pitting two Republicans against one another for a seat in the officially non-partisan Legislature has exposed a divide in the state GOP.

State Sen. Julie Slama, of Peru, is locked in an unusually bitter race against challenger Janet Palmtag, of Nebraska City. Slama is backed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, who appointed her to the seat last year, while Palmtag has been endorsed by former Gov. Dave Heineman.

Slama’s campaign has come under criticism for attack ads accusing Palmtag of being soft on crime that pictured Palmtag with state Sen. Ernie Chambers, one of only two Black lawmakers for the state. Critics included former governors Heineman and Democrat Bob Kerrey, who accused Slama of “race-baiting tactics.”

Last month, state regulators found the Nebraska Republican Party and a political consulting firm liable for making illegal robocalls to benefit Slama.

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