House State Affairs Committee Kills Proposal for Idaho Gaming Commission; Moves to Repeal Historic Horse Racing Law

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The historical horse racing machines found in Les Bois Park look an awful lot like slot machines, according to some Idaho lawmakers. - PATRICK SWEENEY
  • Patrick Sweeney
  • The historical horse racing machines found in Les Bois Park look an awful lot like slot machines, according to some Idaho lawmakers.

The topic of historical horse racing once again surfaced at the Statehouse—this time, on March 19, it came up in the House State Affairs Committee.

Committee members listened to Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, as she introduced House Bill 279, which would create an Idaho Gaming Commission. The commission would oversee the state lottery, all pari-mutuel betting and casinos on tribal lands. 

"Idaho is a gaming state," Perry said. "That might not settle with you personally, but it's happening here."

She said a new commission—comprised of seven members and funded through lottery and racing revenue—would be able to keep up with the changes taking place in gaming activities.

"All of those games [lottery, para-mutuel betting and tribal casinos] have undergone a revolution of sorts," she said. "They are constantly changing and our jobs as legislators are to keep current our statutes and maintain the things the public has always asked to have access to."

She said the commission would be able to act as a mediator between different gaming entities and fairly represent gaming stakeholders. 
Rep. Christy Perry (R-Nampa) asked the House State Affairs Committee to consider creating an Idaho Gaming Commission. - IDAHO LEGISLATURE
  • Idaho Legislature
  • Rep. Christy Perry (R-Nampa) asked the House State Affairs Committee to consider creating an Idaho Gaming Commission.

"The Legislature doesn't have the regulatory authority or oversight capabilities itself to keep up with the fast-pace changes in the gaming industry. This bill seeks to create one cohesive gaming commission to overlook all gaming in Idaho."
 —Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa
When Perry asked the committee to consider a new gaming commission, she stirred up yet another discussion of the slot machine-like terminals now found in Les Bois Park.

"The Legislature is not the appropriate venue for these disputes to be playing out," she said on the topic of historic horse racing. 

After a long discussion, the committee killed the proposal to create an Idaho Gaming Commission, and segued into Senate Bill 1011, which seeks to repeal historical horse racing in the state. The original law to allow the machines was enacted two years ago, but many legislators expressed surprise and frustration when they realized how much the betting terminals resembled slot machines.

"I walked into Les Bois and there were rows and rows of machines that looked like what I would see in Las Vegas," said Rexburg Republican Sen. Brent Hill when the bill came to the Senate floor on Feb. 17. "They had lights and spinning wheels and fruits and berries all over them; they sound like slot machines and they act like slot machines, too."

The Idaho Constitution states that no machines can simulate or imitate slot machine gambling. Because of that, the House State Affairs Committee agreed with the Senate, voting 15-2 to repeal the historic horse racing law.

Representing the Coeur d'Alene tribe, lobbyist Bill Roden spoke passionately against the racing machines. He said it wasn't the fault of the legislators that the investment in the machines was made, but the fault of the "so-called professionals of the [Idaho] Racing Commission."

"I think this Legislature, which granted the authority for these machines to exist, also has the authority to reconsider that and say, 'We made a mistake and it's time to be corrected,''" Roden said. "Duped once, shame on you. Duped twice, shame on us."

The bill will now head to the House floor—the last step before reaching Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's desk.

This is not welcomed news to Treasure Valley Racing President John Sheldon, who operates Les Bois Park in Garden City. Earlier this week, he expressed excitement for HB 279, showing support for the creation of an Idaho Gaming Commission.

"This would ensure that we all continue to operate within the confines of the state's constitution," Sheldon wrote in a statement March 18. "Repealing a constitutional law is not the answer to the legislators’ concerns; rather, forming and allowing one overall gaming commission to regulate the industry is a solution that benefits the industries, the state and the people of Idaho."

Sheldon, along with others who now rely on historical horse racing machines to stay afloat, don't want to see SB 1011 pass. If it does, 200 instant racing terminals throughout the state will be removed.

In December 2014, the Rexburg Standard Journal published an op-ed praising the machines and their contribution to the state.

"During the first six months of operation, Historical Horse Racing generated over $500,000 in new state tax revenue and created more than 110 full-time jobs at three authorized simulcast facilities in the state," the article stated. "Les Bois Park in Boise recently concluded a highly successful race meet and purses reached a record high."

The Standard Journal piece continued to say that historical horse racing "breathe[d] life" into Idaho's horse racing industry.

Despite that, if the full House passes the bill and the governor approves it, historical horse racing would become illegal on July 1.