Jittery about making a $10 million gamble, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has put its casino expansion plans on hold.
It’s Idaho Gov. Phil Batt who is making the tribe uneasy, tribal gaming manager David Matheson said Monday. Batt wants a court to rule on the legality of video gambling machines, which are the big moneymakers at the casino near Worley.
A decision against them would jeopardize not only the investment in expansion but also the important source of income and jobs that the existing casino represents. Last year’s profit was more than $4 million.
“We knew we were going to have to slow down for the winter anyway,” Matheson said of the construction project. “We’ll put it on hold for the next few months, then re-evaluate the change in direction we’re getting from state government.”
Tribal leaders consider Batt’s position an aboutface. They expected him to abide by the October decision of his own specially appointed committee, which narrowly approved continued use of the games.
“When we knew the governor’s gaming study committee had voted to maintain the status quo, we went ahead and started site work,” said Matheson, who served on the committee. “We got our finances in line and were ready to go.”
Matheson called the planned expansion “classy.” It would transform the simple rectangular building, adding high ceilings and a mountain lodge exterior. It would include a restaurant, and double the size of the bingo hall. A stage would be added.
It would be the first phase in the tribe’s $28 million “dream plan.” That calls for a 90-room motel, 3,500-seat events center and skywalks to lead visitors from a new parking lot across U.S. Highway 95.
Batt spokesman Lindsay Nothern said Monday that the tribe’s decision to delay expansion “comes as news to us.”
Batt has encouraged economic development efforts of Idaho tribes. But he opposes gambling and believes that the video pulltab and video lottery games are illegal.
The state can’t sue the tribes. However, Idaho officials are hoping that one or more tribes will agree to let a federal judge decide what’s legal, said deputy attorney general David High.
The Indians seem to have more to lose than to gain from a decision. They could simply avoid such a “friendly lawsuit.”
That may give the Coeur d’Alenes a trump card, Matheson said. On the other hand, he noted, the U.S. attorney in Boise could take the issue to court. That office has been sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the state and tribes to resolve the issue, High said.
U.S. Attorney Betty Richardson couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.
Under federal law, the tribes can offer whatever games the state lottery is legally allowed to offer. Last legislative session, the attorney general floated a bill that would have eliminated the video games - but lawmakers wouldn’t go for it, said High.
“Now we’re hoping we can get some (court) case to resolve these issues, at least for a few years,” High said. “If nobody wants to go to court, the uncertainty persists for awhile.”
Conceivably, he said, it could persist forever.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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