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Idaho House panel narrowly rejects bill going after tribal gaming

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 23, 2017, 10:39 p.m.

Part of the new poker room sign is illuminated at Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort and Hotel in Worley, Idaho, on Monday, April 14, 2014. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Part of the new poker room sign is illuminated at Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort and Hotel in Worley, Idaho, on Monday, April 14, 2014. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – Efforts by Idaho lawmakers to limit tribal gaming failed Thursday in an 8-7 vote.

Legislation would have amended a voter initiative from 15 years ago that legalized tribal casinos statewide.

Backers of the bill, which was strongly supported by Coeur d’Alene Racing Inc., operator of the Greyhound Park Event Center in Post Falls, said they didn’t want to do away with tribal casinos – they just wanted to limit the types of gambling machines the tribes can offer. Others said they oppose all gambling.

But tribal leaders and community leaders from around the state decried the bill, saying it was an inappropriate move against legal activities of Idaho’s Native American tribes, including the Coeur d’Alene’s.

“Thousands of strong, high-paying jobs have resulted from their investments,” said Steve Griffitts, the mayor of Hayden who leads the “Jobs Plus” economic development organization in Kootenai County. “This bill in my opinion sends a negative message that strong economic growth consistent with the laws of the land can be adversely affected by potentially conflicting legislation. Thirteen thousand jobs and $1 billion dollars is in jeopardy if this bill moves forward.”

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, told Griffitts, “I agree the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has done so much for the community up north. You had mentioned you like to have a clear business climate. I think the concern that the committee here today has is that the code has not been super clear, and I think this language is trying to clarify that.”

Griffitts said businesses need both clarity and consistency to operate.

Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said he personally traveled the state talking with Idahoans when the tribal gaming initiative was on the ballot in 2002.

“They said, ‘We support you, we support gaming by the tribes of Idaho as long as the gaming is confined to the reservation.’ ” Allan said, “We need to work together.”

The Greyhound Park, a former dog racetrack, was one of three locations in Idaho that previously offered “instant racing” gambling machines, but had to pull the plug on them after the Legislature banned them last year, two years after authorizing them. Those machines offered betting on past, unidentified horse races, in a slot machine-style format with spinning reels, flashing lights and instant wins. Lawmakers said they were too much like imitation slot machines, which the Idaho Constitution bans.

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said he had the same concern about the gambling machines that Idaho tribes operate in their casinos. Those machines were strictly defined by the voter initiative, which has been upheld in both state and federal court.

Doug Okuniewicz, general manager of Coeur d’Alene Racing, told the House State Affairs Committee it would clarify “what’s legal and what’s not.

“This is in our view the single largest glaring problem and source of confusion for lawmakers, citizens, you name it, to understand what’s legal and what isn’t in the gambling business,” he said. “So we’re supporting this bill because we think it helps clarify the biggest problem.”

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe proposed to purchase the Greyhound Park and locate its tribal casino there in the 1990s, but then-Gov. Phil Batt refused to allow that, saying gaming should stay on Idaho’s Indian reservations. The tribe agreed, and built its current casino at Worley.

Numerous speakers at the hearings, which ran for several hours on Monday and Tuesday mornings before Wednesday’s committee debate and vote, said lawmakers seem to bring up the same questions about tribal gaming every few years, even though they’ve long been settled in court. Several attorneys said the bill would lead to lawsuits by raising questions about settled legal issues.

“Historically, whenever Indians have made progress in one segment of life, it seems like the rug is always jerked out from under us, and we don’t want that to happen,” said Darrell Shay, vice chairman of the Fort Hall Business Council of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. He said the “good citizens of Idaho have … given us their blessing to conduct the type of gaming that we have.”

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, said the bill would give the state more authority to check up on the types of machines tribes use in their casinos.

“This is not an attack on the tribes, nor is it an attack on gaming,” he said. “It’s a fact of life that lawsuits are filed.”

Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, said he opposes all gambling machines, and believes they violate the state constitution.

“If I thought this piece of legislation would in any way help us to remove those machines, I would be in support of it,” he said. “However, I do not think that that is what this piece of legislation will accomplish. I believe it will put us into a lawsuit that we will not win.”

Under federal law, sovereign Indian tribes can offer gaming if anyone else in the state can. When Idaho authorized its state lottery, that opened the door for the tribes to negotiate compacts with the state to offer Class III gaming, which includes lotteries and lottery-based gaming machines.

“I would hate for this to go to the courts for them to decide what is to come down to impact our economy and our communities who very much rely on the resources that the tribes provide,” said Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

If Idaho banned all gambling – including the lottery, pari-mutuel betting on horse racing, and charitable bingo and raffles – then the tribes couldn’t negotiate gaming compacts. But attorney, longtime lobbyist and former state lawmaker Bill Roden told the committee, “That is not the case in Idaho. We do permit Class III gaming, and we do it constitutionally.”


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