Gambling Proposals Heard; Alarm Expressed Over YRTC

by Fred Knapp, NET News

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Feb. 10, 2020, 6:22 p.m.

Proposals to legalize sports betting and other forms of gambling in Nebraska drew opposition at a legislative public hearing Monday. And senators expressed concern about violence and escapes at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney.

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha is lead sponsor of three gambling measures: one a bill to legalize sports betting, one a bill to legalize games that require some skill like fantasy sports or poker, and one, a constitutional amendment which would legalize whatever gambling the Legislature approved. Wayne said Nebraskans are already gambling.

“The fact of the matter is Nebraskans are already doing this,” Wayne said, adding that there are three casinos across the Missouri River from his district. “In the last 2-3 years you no long have to cross the river to go to the casino. There is a casino in Carter Lake,” the Iowa community that sits on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River, he added.

Wayne said despite that, Nebraska is not getting revenue from most forms of gambling.

“Our gambling laws are outdated. The fact of the matter is they’re counterproductive. Ninety percent of Nebraskans live 120 miles away from a casino. That’s two hours. Eighty five percent live an hour and a half away. And roughly…75 percent of Nebraskans live an hour to an hour and 25 minutes awy from a casino. It’s happening,” he said.

Opposing the measures, Les Bernal of the national organization Stop Predatory Gambling discounted the argument that Nebraskans are already gambling.

“That is a recycled argument that every state gambling lobbyist across the country uses. So Alabama as we speak is having a debate on casinos right now. You know what the argument is? ‘Well if we don’t do it, they’re just going to go to Florida. They’re going to go to Mississippi.’ It’s a recycled argument. And the irony is, these are national companies. So these national companies come in and they pit state against state.”

And former University of Nebraska head football coach Tom Osborne said sports betting plays on people’s emotions.

“So if you’re a big Nebraska fan, sometimes you want to emphasize your loyalty by placing a bet. And sports fans are inundated with information about Nebraska and they don’t know much about other teams and they just assume that maybe Nebraska’s gonna win,” Osborne said.

The committee took no immediate action on the proposals.

And senators discussed increasingly serious problems at the state’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney. That’s a facility where youth between the ages of 14 and 19 are sent by the courts for offenses including assault, theft and burglary.

Sen. Sara Howard, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said that (please leave this “that” in there. Otherwise it sounds like she said it Friday) Friday morning, four boys took apart their metal cots and beat three staff members with the pieces. The beating was serious enough that they were taken to the hospital. Between Saturday and Sunday, three boys ran away.

“What we’re seeing is an escalating trend of both violence and escapes at YRTC Kearney that we cannot ignore,” Howard said.

Howard said there had been four escapes in 2018, 39 last year, and this year was on track to have 39 in the first three months.

Sen. John Lowe, who represents Kearney, said that community is tired of trouble at the facility. He said 90 percent of youth sent there want to do their time and return home, but 10 percent need more strict treatment. “Let’s protect the innocent people. And those who committed crimes, let’s put them where they need to be, so that those who committed crimes can get better. These are not polite young schoolchildren. These 10 percent – they will kill you,” Lowe said.

Howard said the YRTC currently holds 98 boys and 22 girls. The girls were sent there after they were removed last year from a facility in Geneva, Nebraska where they were found to be living in decrepit conditions. Howard said the state needs to do better.

“I am concerned about what’s going on at Kearney. I’m concerned about the safety of the kids there, the girls there, and I’m concerned about the staff. I’m getting calls and emails and texts and pictures of bloodstains that are still on the floor from the assault that happened on Friday. We cannot ignore what’s happening there. It is scary, and it is an emergency,” she said.

Howard’s committee is considering a package of bills to set standards, reporting requirements and plans for YRTCs, as well as studying the establishment of an adolescent psychiatric unit at the Lincoln Regional Center. But she said the legislative process is slow, and the executive branch can respond more quickly.

Leah Bucco-White, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the YRTC, said additional management will now be on site 24 hours a day, and the department is working with law enforcement to investigate the assaults and escapes.

In other legislative debate Monday, senators considered a proposal that would turn the state sales taxes residents pay on water and sewer bills over to local public utilities to improve that infrastructure. Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, the bill’s introducer, said that would help ease the burden on residents of his community who would otherwise have to pay for federally-mandated sewer improvements through further rate increases.

At a public hearing last year, the bill drew support from Lincoln and Blair, as well. But Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, where the water plant was wiped out in last year’s flooding, estimated it would contribute only $10,000 a year to the cost of replacing the plant, which she said would be at least $10 million.

“Ten thousand of ten million is 0.1 percent. This bill really isn’t going to make a dent in the needs of those communities, so I would urge caution for those who may be under the impression that this bill may make some sort of big impact in our smaller communities, because it really won’t,” Slama said.

Wayne offered an amendment to simply exempt all water purchases from the sales tax. Senators ran out of time for debate before reaching a vote on the bill.