Idaho is a devoutly free-enterprise state, yet voters there are being asked to change state law to prop up one industry: horse racing. Proposition 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot purports to generate support for public education, but it would do little for schools. Instead it would be a windfall only for a few people – those who would operate video horse racing.
The measure would legalize betting on past horse races. That seems like an oxymoron, but technology makes historical horse racing – also known as instant racing – feasible. It is legal in Oregon, Wyoming, Kentucky and Arkansas.
Gamblers place their bets through video terminals that are akin to slot machines. As our Oct. 21 news story explained, bettors wager on unnamed horses in unidentified races selected at random from a vast video database.
The Idaho Legislature had legalized this sort of instant race gambling in 2013 but outlawed it two years later at the behest of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Gov. Butch Otter vetoed the 2015 ban, but the Idaho Supreme Court overturned his veto on procedural grounds.
Gambling often is touted as a way to boost government budgets or to bring economic independence via casinos for Indian tribes. Consequently, there is no lack of gambling opportunities throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Most of the money wagered on this instant horse race gambling – at least 90 percent – would be returned to winning bettors. Owners of the machines and gambling venues would keep the second-largest share, 9 percent. That leaves a paltry 1 percent for all the public good and the societal costs.
The Public School Income Fund, which is being promoted by supporters of the proposition as a big winner, would only get one half of 1 percent. Last year, live racing in Idaho generated merely $140.54 for the fund. In contrast, instant racing netted nearly $520,000 for schools during the final eight months the machines were legal in 2015. That might sound like a lot, but it’s not much of the $104 million wagered.
State regulators, thoroughbred and quarter horse breeders, and youth programs of the Idaho Horse Council would receive minuscule payouts.
Meanwhile, all of Idaho would suffer the negative effects of more gambling. Gambling addiction is a real problem that affects communities. Even when it’s not addiction, the house always wins in the long run, and people – often those who can least afford it – throw money away in the hope of a big payday that never comes.
Live horse racing is on the decline nationally and regionally. The public has lost interest so much that few newspapers regularly cover the sport anymore. Even big-name tracks in America have turned to other entertainment, including video racing, to make up for lost income.
During its short lifetime in Idaho, instant racing was played on video machines at Greyhound Park in Post Falls, Les Bois Park in Boise and Double Down Sports Bar & Grill in Idaho Falls.
Treasure Valley Racing, which holds the lease at the currently closed Les Bois Park, has bankrolled the measure with millions of dollars. The group’s owners said their goal is not financial enrichment but the revival of horse racing.
Even if the backers really are philanthropists operating with the best of intentions, Proposition 1 is not in the public’s best interests.
Like many ballot measures, it is constitutionally suspect. And while it provides a bit of support for live racing and the resulting jobs, it raises the legitimate question of why one small industry is being singled out for voters’ support. It also places a greater regulatory burden on the Idaho State Racing Commission, which is so poorly funded that it lacks an executive director and meets only by phone.
Opponents of the measure include prominent Republicans and Democrats, as well as law enforcement officials. They are right: Proposition 1 is a bad bet. Vote no.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.