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Gambling May Be Issue In 1998 Races

If Gov. Phil Batt decides in a month or so to run for a second term, it could be a very boring 1998 Idaho election since he’s considered virtually unbeatable.

But gambling might change that.

Batt’s been trying to get a handle on just what Idaho’s policy should be in light of the reservation casinos he has taken issue with. He appointed an advisory committee which through this week’s meetings in Boise seems likely to recommend preservation of the status quo - and no expansion of tribal gambling operations.

A new group, Help Idaho Inc., is on an anti-gambling crusade, although it isn’t clear whether it wants to go all the way and ban the voter-approved Idaho Lottery and pari-mutuel wagering on horse races along with Indian casinos.

Boise businessman Larry Eastland, who challenged Gov. Phil Batt in the 1994 Republican primary, is one of the three founders of Help Idaho.

Is he planning another run for governor under an anti-gambling banner?

Eastland says not if Batt seeks a second term.

“If not the first to endorse Phil Batt for another term, I was pretty close to it,” Eastland says. “I think Phil Batt has been an excellent governor.”

What if Batt doesn’t run?

“We will cross that bridge when we come to it,” Eastland said. But he has no current plans for a campaign.

Eastland is among those behind the Sweetwater Junction amusement-business park on the outskirts of Nampa. Although not a spade of dirt has been turned, he expects at least the amusement park will be open next Memorial Day.

“I am committed for whatever number of years it takes to make this a success,” he said. “Business and family really do occupy my time.”

While acknowledging that the governor isn’t as eager to eliminate gambling as Help Idaho is, Eastland won’t criticize Batt directly for that.

“We all are going to disagree on issues,” he says.

But he and the other Help Idaho leaders plan to seek donations for the anti-gambling effort. He talks of legislation to clarify exactly what voters meant when they approved the lottery and whether the current tribal gambling operations are illegal.

He contends that when voters twice approved the state lottery, they meant only paper pull-tab and scratch tickets. More advanced games were to be illegal.

Last January, Batt told the Legislature he wanted to clarify what’s legal and what’s not. He said overall state policy was the point, although it was obvious the target was the tribes’ electronic pull-tab machines he said were illegal.

But in February, touring the Indian reservations and seeing the economic development and prosperity cash from reservation gambling fostered, Batt backed down. Instead, he talked only of slowing or stopping “the tidal wave of gambling” across Idaho and the rest of the country.

He settled for the advisory committee, which wound up its preliminary meetings last Wednesday. It seems likely to recommend that the tribes be allowed to keep what they have with no further expansion.

But even that recommendation, which is not binding on anyone, might come on a 7-5 vote - hardly a mandate.

Eastland believes the problem is that two issues have become tangled. One is gambling, and the other is economic prosperity and self-sufficiency for the Indians. He thinks Idaho’s leaders need to find a way to get poverty out of the reservations - separately from a decision on what to do about gambling.

Dave Matheson, gaming manager for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, sees the electronic games as the logical development in how lottery tickets are sold. He contends there’s no difference between the Idaho Lottery’s “green machines” in grocery stores selling lottery tickets and machines in the Indian casinos doing the same thing.

Eastland says his anti-gambling stance is based on economics because gambling can have serious negative consequences for both individuals and communities.

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