Gov. Phil Batt stood his ground Wednesday against the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s new Internet gambling operation, refusing to buy tribal leaders’ contention that it is nothing more than an electronic version of state lottery games.
But during an amicable 20-minute meeting with Tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar and gaming director Dave Matheson, Batt signaled his hope that his new gambling committee could find a resolution to the dispute over the operation’s legality that is acceptable to the tribe.
The sharply divided panel convened its organizational session 90 minutes later but did not take up the Internet question.
“I’m fully aware that our lottery simulates casino games on paper scratch-offs,” Batt said. “That’s one thing the committee can do is to say whether these are similar and whether we want to make a distinction between electronics and paper.”
But without that, or a federal court ruling deciding once and for all who is right, the governor said he had no choice but to move ahead with plans to legally block the fledgling operation.
“I have to take whatever actions I can to uphold my oath,” Batt said. “I have felt that there was no immense urgency to pre-empt the actions of the committee, but when this new development took place, it created a sense of urgency with me because it is an exponential increase in the availability of gambling to Idahoans.”
“The majority of people in Idaho have voted that that’s not what they want to have,” he said.
Stensgar was equally adamant in defending the new operation that has been in a test phase since last month and has been accepting bets from only a limited test group for two weeks. It is the latest development in tribal gambling that has created hundreds of jobs and pumped millions of dollars into depressed reservation economies around Idaho.
“We did with gaming dollars what we said we’d do,” Stensgar told the governor. “I’m able to do for my people what has never been able to be done before.”
But Matheson said later that while the tribe will continue the initial test phase of the Internet operation through the end of the month, Batt’s opposition means leaders will have to decide whether to embark on the second, expanded test phase this summer. Full operation originally was targeted for October.
He said the tribe would supply additional written information before that in an attempt to either convince Batt the proposed games are legal even though they simulate blackjack, keno, poker and slots or get a definitive response on which ones the state objects to and why.
“It’s still our feeling today that we will not do games on the Internet that the state objects to,” Matheson told Batt. “We’re going to be attacked by every other state. We can’t do it without the state of Idaho.”
The state of Missouri already has sought a court order blocking the company that operates the Internet site for the tribe from accepting money from its residents. Matheson maintained that kind of action in a state with riverboat gambling is prompted solely by the state’s fear of losing money on its own games.
Internet gambling is a new twist for the governor’s committee, which resulted from last winter’s ill-fated attack by Batt and lawmakers on the electronic pull-tab machines they claim are illegal but have become integral parts of lucrative tribal casino operations.
And while it did not surface on Wednesday, the sharp philosophical division among the 12 voting members did, even as it set its meeting schedule and ground rules. There was acknowledgement early on that the final recommendations on Nov. 1 for Batt would not be unanimous - something the governor readily conceded when he brought together people with such divergent views on gambling.
There was haggling between tribal representatives and acknowledged anti-gambling conservatives over whether documents involving their inquiry should refer to gambling or gaming, which was favored by the tribes and finally settled on by the group.
There also was debate over whether the deliberations should determine what is legal under current law - the core issue in the debate between Batt and the tribes - or what level of gambling is best for the state regardless of the law. The resolution seemed muddled.
xxxx GAMBLING HEARINGS The committee set area tours and public hearings for June 17 in Sandpoint, June 18 in Coeur d’Alene, July 1 in Lewiston, July 24 in Pocatello and Aug. 5-6 in Boise.