Arguments on gambling, speed limits aired

What rules should be in place for expanded gambling in Nebraska? And should local common sense or statewide engineering standards determine speed limits? Those were among questions raised in hearings in the Nebraska Legislature Monday.

Sen. Tom Briese sponsored a bill to implement the expanded gambling approved by voters in the last election. Briese said he’s not been a fan of expanded gambling, but voters approved it in Novembers so he’s trying to clarify the rules for it. Briese has argued the language approved by voters, authorizing games of chance, implies approval of sports betting, although only at racetracks, so his bill authorizes that.

Former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Oborne opposed that provision. He said the bill limits betting to professional sports, but predicted gambling interests would push to include collegiate sports, which will be hard on young athletes.

“If they don’t measure up to what some gambler thinks they should have done, social media will be all over them. And it will be brutal. I lived with that thing for a lot of years. I used to get a whole box of letters and they were pretty nasty every time we lost one game. And I guarantee you with the setup today, it will be pretty intense,” Osborne said.

Briese’s bill would also prohibit using credit cards at casinos. But Chris Kotulak, CEO of the Fonner Park racetrack in Grand Island, argued against that limit, saying casinos get more than 15 percent of their revenue from people using credit. Kotulak was asked about the pitfall of people gambling money they don’t have. He said that’s a problem in other activities as well.

“It could be just as much of a pitfall as it is if you go online to go to Amazon, or if you go to a mall to go shop, or if you go to a restaurant and maybe should stop ordering dessert. People can be excessive. They have to be responsible for their own behavior,” Kotulak said.

Briese’s bill is just one of several proposals to address expanded gambling that the General Affairs Committee will consider.

And, who should set speed limits was discussed in a hearing by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard wants to let communities of 500 people or more determine the speed limit on state highways passing through. Currently, only cities of at least 40,000 have that authority. Erdman said the town of Oshkosh, Nebraska wants to lower the speed limit on Highways 26 and 27 from 45 to 40 miles an hour, which residents think would be safer. When he presented his bill in a previous legislative session, Erdman said residents wrote letters and supported the proposal. But now, he says, they’re frustrated.

“I contacted the folks in Oshkosh and asked if they would like to submit letters as they did the last time and they declined, because they said you can only be told to sit down and shut up so many times before you give up. And so, they didn’t believe that it would do them any good to write more letters or call more people or get involved. They have given up. I have not,” Erdman said.

Erdman said these decisions should be local.

“I’m here today to ask you to give us an opportunity in small communities to make decisions about safety. And we know best, the people who live there know best what is safe and what isn’t,” he said.

Moe Jamshidi, acting director of the state Department of Transportation, opposed the proposal. Jamshidi said the state has to follow federal rules that say speed limit decisions need to be based on engineering and traffic studies.

“We don’t have really any issues if the local communities want to hire a professional engineer to look at all those statistics, local data and make a judgement, based on sound engineering instead of saying, ‘I kind of feel like 40 is about right,’” Jamshidi said.

Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston said paying for such a study, which Jamshidi said might cost $10,000 to $20,000, might not be realistic for small towns. And Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard expressed frustration at depending on studies when local law enforcement is warning him of safety dangers, for example, on Highway 77 around Wahoo.

“When I have the chief of police from the city, when I have the county sheriff from that area, come to me and say, ‘We have to lower the speed limit. People are dying at these intersections,’ and we come back to well, the engineering report says, ‘Well, there’s not enough cars, not enough trucks. There’s not enough people turn left; there’s not enough people turn right,” Bosetlman said.

Jamshidi said while it might seem like common sense, it’s not always true lower speed limits reduce the number of crashes.

“If a posted speed limit is unrealistically low, it creates a greater speed variance, as in some drivers, follow the speed limit, while most drive at a higher speed that seems reasonable to them. This speed variance can lead to tailgating, unsafe passing, road rage and ultimately to more crashes,” he said.

However, he said the department is willing to work with local communities to re-examine the data, and said he would look again at the situation in Oshkosh.

Also Monday, Gov. Pete Ricketts commented on news that the state has renegotiated a contract with Saint Francis Ministries to provide child welfare case management in the eastern service region, or Douglas and Sarpy Counties. The old contract was for$72 million for the first two years; the new one is for up to $158 million for that period.

“The people who put forth the proposal on this are no longer with Saint Francis and are being investigated for financial mismanagement, which is very unfortunate circumstances, but it is where we are today. We’ve got to place our priority on taking care of our children and families in the eastern service region,” Ricketts said.

Saint Francis has said it could not continue to operate without more money.

Ricketts said he was speaking from home via Zoom. The governor’s office announced Monday afternoon he would quarantine for seven days after having been exposed over the weekend to someone who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. A spokesman for the governor said Monday afternoon the Ricketts has no symptoms.

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