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Bid to vote on betting machines at tracks sparks dispute

Instant horse racing terminals line a wall at the Greyhound Park and Event Center in Post Falls on Tuesday, January 20, 2015. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Instant horse racing terminals line a wall at the Greyhound Park and Event Center in Post Falls on Tuesday, January 20, 2015. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – Backers of a ballot initiative seeking to legalize lucrative betting machines in Idaho said Wednesday that the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has hired operatives to deter and intimidate voters from signing the petition, a claim the tribe denies.

“This is a blatant attempt to disrupt and undermine the process of direct democracy by physically and verbally intimidating voters,” Bruce Newcomb, chairman of the Save Idaho Horse Racing campaign, said in a statement. “While campaigns can be and often are wars of words, these folks are using in-your-face intimidation tactics to prevent the people from putting a key policy question on the ballot.”

The tribe, however, denied those accusations and said they hired operatives to counteract the misinformation being distributed by the horse racing industry.

“I would absolutely deny any intimidation,” said Tyrel Stevenson with North Idaho Voter Project – a political action committee connected to the tribe. “I think if they were doing anything illegal, then it would have been dealt with by law enforcement rather than with a press release.”

Stevenson, who is also the tribe’s registered lobbyist, pushed for a bill last week that would have made it illegal to knowingly lie while collecting signatures for state ballot initiatives. The proposal never got a hearing before the end of the 2018 legislative session, but the move indicated the tribe’s increasing efforts to oppose the initiative.

Tribes across the state have previously come out against the betting terminals because they argued the machines do not use the legal wagering allowed under Idaho law. Yet the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is the only tribe so far to launch a PAC with the goal of stopping the initiative from securing enough signatures.

Save Idaho Horse Racing took issue with tribe’s operatives passing out fliers claiming the initiative is “not about horse racing” and that petitioners are “deliberately misleading voters.” Some petitioners said they have been closely followed by the operatives while trying to secure signatures. They said the operatives are handing out the fliers before voters decide if they want to sign.

Between 2013 and 2015, roughly 200 betting terminals were installed at a handful of tracks in Idaho when the machines were legal, but lawmakers banned them in 2015 after deeming them too similar to illegal slot machines. The repeal effort generated outrage from the horse racing industry, claiming the tribes were unfairly trying to squelch competition because they currently have a monopoly on video gambling.

The Idaho Legislature has since refused to reconsider legalizing the machines, forcing supporters to file a ballot initiative to bypass lawmakers.

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