BOISE – With feelings running high over “instant racing” in Idaho, two 80-somethings nearly came to blows in a Statehouse hallway Wednesday after a Senate committee voted to repeal the law authorizing the gambling machines.
And moments after the vote North Idaho senator Bob Nonini released a letter calling for an investigation into whether the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is using illegal gambling machines in its reservation casino – the biggest employer in Nonini’s district. The tribe had pushed for repeal of the law.
“If we’re going to look at one, let’s look at them all,” said Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene.
In the marble hallway outside the hearing room, Idaho ranching icon and philanthropist Harry Bettis, in a white cowboy hat, confronted the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s lobbyist, Bill Roden, and loudly called him a “damn liar,” amid other comments. Roden, an attorney and former state senator who had given the closing statement in favor of the repeal bill, walked away before Capitol security arrived.
“He was trying to get me to punch him, but I’m smarter than that,” the 86-year-old Roden said afterward.
Bettis, 80, is one of five owners of Les Bois Park in Boise, another of the three locations where the betting machines are located. Another of the locations is the Greyhound Park and Event Center in Post Falls.
Senators had heard hours of heartfelt pleas from people involved in Idaho’s horse racing industry, who said the betting machines could save their industry. But the Senate State Affairs Committee, with only one “no” vote, approved the legislation to repeal the 2013 law allowing the machines. That sends the bill to the full Senate; if it passes there and in the House and receives the governor’s signature, the machines would become illegal as of July 1.
Horse racing industry backers said the gambling machines are the only way Idaho’s dwindling industry will survive, particularly now that betting on horse racing has competition from tribal casinos and a state lottery.
But the senators said they were misled in 2013. “What was represented is not what was installed,” said Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa.
Nonini and three other North Idaho lawmakers wrote to the Idaho Lottery director, suggesting gaming machines at tribal casinos in Idaho may be illegal.
“Since slot machines are clearly not allowed in Idaho, we respectfully request that you review for compliance the electronic games in use at all Idaho tribal casinos including the Coeur d’Alene Casino,” Nonini said in the letter, which also was signed by Reps. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene; Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; and Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay.
Helo Hancock, legislative liaison for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said, “I would say Sen. Nonini apparently hasn’t taken a look at federal laws, hasn’t taken a look at the gaming compacts, hasn’t taken a look at Proposition 1 or years of court history if he’s making accusations like that.” Proposition 1 was the 2002 voter initiative that legalized tribal gaming in Idaho.
“It’s sad to see a state senator attacking the largest employer in his district because he’s on the other side of an issue,” Hancock said.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe canceled its summer powwow that’s been held for many years at the Greyhound Park over the instant racing issue.
Jeff Anderson, state lottery director, said he believes the machines used in the tribal casino are legal and he’s working on a response to the lawmakers’ letter.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe proposed the bill to repeal the 2013 law that authorized betting on “historical horse racing” in Idaho, saying instead of a new form of simulcast betting to help raise money for the horse industry, the law led to slot machines.
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