Virus not likely to stop Nebraska marijuana, casino measures

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska voters may still get a chance to legalize medical marijuana and casino gambling even though the new coronavirus has forced activists to stop collecting signatures to place the issues on the November ballot.

Organizers from both campaigns said they’re confident they’ll have enough signatures to qualify before the July 2 deadline to submit their petitions, even though they’ve pulled their circulators off the streets.

Both groups said they had already gathered a large number before the pandemic forced the closure of public buildings and cancellation of major events where circulators often work.

“I’m still optimistic,” said Sen. Anna Wishart, a co-chairwoman of Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana. “It’s a popular issue, and we’ve got a really good base of signatures. I feel really positive about where we are right now.”

Organizers of the campaign to legalize casino gambling in Nebraska said they had already slowed their signature-gathering for the winter months and decided to extend that break for another few weeks to try to keep the virus from spreading. It’s not clear how long people will be asked to remain at home to avoid infecting others, but campaign officials said they hope to resume operations later in the spring.

“We’re within shouting distance of getting what we need,” said Lance Morgan, the president and CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., which is bankrolling the petition drive. “It won’t take a huge effort to get there. It’s still snowing and cold out there and people are nervous, so it makes sense to take a little hiatus.”

Morgan said he considers it an easy sell because the issue polls well in Nebraska, and many gamblers already cross the Missouri River to spend their money at Iowa casinos. He said his group commissioned a study that found Nebraskans have spent $11.1 billion on Iowa casinos since they began opening in the 1990s. Opponents, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, have argued the measure would encourage more people to compulsively gamble.

The campaigns declined to say exactly how many signatures they’ve gathered.

Because the measures are proposed constitutional amendments, the petition campaigns need signatures from at least 10% of the state’s registered voters — roughly 121,000 people as of this month. In addition, they need to get signatures from at least 5% of the voters in 38 of the state’s 93 counties to ensure that rural Nebraska is represented.

The virus has upended life throughout the nation as people hunker down to try to minimize its impact. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing heath problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

Another ballot campaign that seeks to lower taxes for Nebraska property owners has also scaled back its efforts because of the virus, said Paul Von Behren, executive director of the petition group TRUE Nebraskans. Von Behren said the campaign was “doing fine,” and still had some volunteers working in a limited capacity.

“We’re taking this a day at a time,” he said. “We’re obviously going to keep moving on this, but with the large number of public events canceled, it’s going to be more of a challenge.”

Von Behren said the virus would have hurt the campaign more if it had happened earlier, but petition circulators have already banked a lot of the signatures they need.

“Everything right now just depends on how quickly the wave passes through,” he said. “Obviously, there’s no way of knowing right now.”

Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen said he doesn’t plan to extend the submission deadline for petition campaigns because the requirements are spelled out in state law.

“There has been time prior to the spread of this virus for those seeking signatures to do so,” Evnen said.