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Batt Softens Stand On Gambling Acknowledging Economic Benefits To Tribe, Governor Calls For Legislative Study

Thu., Feb. 27, 1997, midnight

Gov. Phil Batt further moderated his view on Indian reservation electronic gambling machines Wednesday, acknowledging their economic benefit for the tribes and calling for a legislative study “to sort through this issue.”

“I still say that the tidal wave of gambling going through the country is not good for the country,” Batt said. “But this question is much bigger than Phil Batt. It’s much bigger than Idaho.

“It’s a question of a seemingly inevitable advance of gambling in this country,” he said, adding, “Most people probably want this limited gaming activity to continue.”

Lobbyists working for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe reported that the governor’s office had been inundated with supportive phone calls, letters and e-mail messages since tribes started a TV and newspaper ad blitz this month.

“There’s been a tremendous response to our efforts,” Laura Stensgar, the tribe’s marketing director, said Wednesday. Casino employees, customers and vendors also participated in a letter-writing campaign of their own, Stensgar said.

Marlene Justus, a marketing assistant with the tribe, said she wasn’t surprised at the response.

“I knew. I just felt we had a lot of support from the community and Idaho in general. I think everyone’s pretty much for gaming.”

A day earlier, while touring North Idaho to deliver flood relief money, Batt said the vast majority of letters, telephone calls and personal visits with various groups have shown support for the so-called electronic pull-tab machines that four of the five Idaho tribes have incorporated into their bingo casinos.

Batt still maintained that many of those machines violate the intention of the 1992 constitutional amendment and subsequent law prohibiting any kind of casino-style gambling in Idaho. The tribes argue that the machines are the equivalent of the state Lottery, and under federal law are legal.

The governor’s comments follow the public declarations of support for existing gambling operations of the Nez Perce Tribe from the Nez Perce County Commission and the Lewiston Chamber of Commerce.

Both extolled the economic improvements the tribe has experienced because of profits from gambling operations.

And Batt agreed that “it’s done some economic good, there’s no doubt about that.”

Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar has said their casino in Worley provides some 200 jobs.

Indirectly, the gaming engine has created a total of 600 to 700 new jobs in the area, the tribe claims. A recent economic impact study determined the casino has given the economies of Benewah and Kootenai counties a $60 million boost since opening in 1993.

The governor has proposed legislation to clearly ban video pull-tab machines. A hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee is scheduled for Monday. And Batt said he would not be opposed to that bill passing but pointed out that it is still up to the federal government to enforce the state law on the reservation. He blasted Democratic U.S. Attorney Betty Richardson seven weeks ago for what he called her timidity in enforcing existing laws.

He said a legislative review this summer and fall could possibly find a way for existing gaming practices to legally continue on the reservations without expanding further.

Discussions with governors of Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Montana have made him leery about achieving that.

“Wherever these activities have started, they have leapfrogged until they encompass very large operations,” Batt said. “We need to determine in Idaho whether we want that, so it is something that needs to be studied.”

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From staff and wire reports Staff writer Ward Sanderson contributed to this report.


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