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Batt Folds Gambling Panel Tribes Told To Take Video Lottery Issue To Court

Gov. Phil Batt stunned Idaho tribal leaders Thursday by asking them to agree to seek a federal court ruling on whether their video lottery gambling machines are legal.

Batt’s comments came as he received reports from a special committee of tribal representatives, legislators and gambling opponents that has been studying the issue since last spring.

After hearings across the state, a majority of the committee recommended endorsing gaming operations in Idaho that already exist. In return for settling the issue, the tribes offered to limit expansion of their gaming operations and, for the first time, give the state an enforcement role.

David Matheson, gaming CEO for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said Thursday: “We’re very surprised and disappointed. We thought we had worked on this committee since spring … to avoid going to court.”

He and other tribal leaders said they’ll have to confer with their tribal councils before giving the governor an answer.

The state and the tribes have been at odds over gaming for several years. Last year, Batt proposed legislation designed to limit tribal gaming, but he backed off in favor of forming the study committee.

Batt said if the court declares the tribes’ machines legal, that’s that. If the machines are declared illegal, the state would have two options: Push for enforcement to shut down the machines or change Idaho law or the state Constitution to legalize them.

“Right now, I don’t think we know where we are, and that’s the only way to go about it,” Batt said. “It has to be determined in court.”

Federal law allows sovereign Indian tribes to conduct any form of gambling that’s legal in a state if they negotiate a gaming compact with the state. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has such a compact, as do the Nez Perce and Kootenai tribes.

The tribes argue that their video lottery machines are equivalent to operations of Idaho’s state lottery, so they’re legal.

The Idaho Attorney General’s office, however, contends the machines, which function like a slot machine but distribute a slip of paper rather than coins, are illegal under a constitutional amendment passed by Idaho voters in 1992. Courts have made no clear determination.

Batt said he’s “not a fan of gambling.”

“It creates no wealth, it merely transfers money from one person to another, and in many cases transfers money from those who can ill afford it.”

However, he said, the economic benefits gambling has brought to Idaho’s historically poverty-stricken Indian reservations are indisputable.

“You’d be a fool to go out there and say it has not been a positive improvement,” the governor said. “It certainly has been.”

Of the 295 people who testified at six public hearings across the state held by the committee, only 25 opposed existing forms of gambling in Idaho.

Said Batt: “Do I think that some gaming should be accommodated? Yes, I do - not that I’m wild about it, but I think that that’s where the people want us to be.”

Matheson said, “The abject and very harsh poverty that has afflicted our Indian people is disappearing because of tribal gaming.”

The economic boost has benefited non-Indians in surrounding communities, too, Matheson said.

The Coeur d’Alenes have donated a portion of gaming proceeds to tribal and public schools.

Episcopal Bishop John Thornton, cast the tie-breaking vote on the committee. He said he supported the majority’s call to allow the status quo as far as gaming, providing that what’s going on now is legal.

“I’m smack in the middle of this thing,” Thornton said. “If there’s any dispute about any forms of gambling, we ought to go to court and get them resolved.”

Stanley Crow, who wrote the committee’s minority report, said he was “very pleased” with the governor’s call for a court ruling.

“If the majority would have said they would be willing to abide by the law, we would’ve been unanimous,” Crow said.

Crow, who believes the tribes’ machines are illegal, also criticized the majority report for not pointing out the ills of gambling. From reading the report, he said, “You would think gambling is like going to Little League on Saturday afternoon.”

Deputy Attorney General David High said if the governor adopted the report of the majority of the gaming committee and endorsed current gaming operations, the state could face a court challenge.

“I think that either the constitution has to be amended, or there will be a court challenge,” High said. “I don’t see any way around it.”

Batt said that if the court ruled against the tribes’ machines, he would consider supporting legislation or a constitutional amendment to legalize them.

, DataTimes MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition

This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT TRIBES WANT Idaho Indian tribes want to continue gaming operations in Idaho that already exist, including limited tribal gaming, the state lottery, horse racing and charitable raffles.

Cut in Spokane edition

This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT TRIBES WANT Idaho Indian tribes want to continue gaming operations in Idaho that already exist, including limited tribal gaming, the state lottery, horse racing and charitable raffles.

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