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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho lawmakers question slot machine-like ‘instant racing’

Greyhound Park and Event Center General Manager Doug Okuniewicz talked about the park’s new instant horse racing terminals at the facility Jan. 20, 2015, in Post Falls. (Kathy Plonka)
BOISE - Idaho lawmakers expressed deep concerns this morning about slot machine-like “instant racing” betting machines that have been installed in Post Falls, Idaho Falls and the Treasure Valley under legislation passed two years ago authorizing betting on “historical” horse races. “This committee was flatly deceived on historical horse racing,” Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said in this morning’s House State Affairs Committee meeting. “And what we voted for is not what we got.” Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I was really suspicious about this bill in 2013. I was really suspicious about it and my suspicions were proven to be true.” The committee had an administrative rule up for approval proposed by the state Racing Commission, to put what some called a “low speed bump” in front of the spread of the machines, by requiring prospective new licensees to have had simulcasting licenses for a year. Currently, there are only three existing simulcasting licenses, and they’re at the three places that already have the machines. Simulcasting involves betting on broadcasts of live races that are happening elsewhere. “I think the commission realized that the Legislature was concerned about the proliferation of these things,” state Racing Commission Executive Director Frank Lamb. “That’s what this rule’s about, to give them the authority to say ‘no, you haven’t been simulcasting,’” to new applicants, he said. “They could go further than that, but this is a start.” Some committee members, including Luker, backed the rule as a first step toward reining in the machines, but Bill Roden, lobbyist for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, urged rejection of the rule, saying approving it would endorse the existing scheme – and instead, the Legislature ought to step back, repeal the 2013 law and start over. After much discussion, the panel decided to delay its vote on the rule for a week and get more information, including about an investigation that’s been launched by the Post Falls Police Department into whether the machines at the Greyhound Park Event Center there are illegal slot machines. Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, read from the Idaho Constitution, which bans forms of gambling that “employ any electronic or electromechanical imitation or simulation of any form of casino gambling,” including slot machines. “They do pretty much look like slot machines,“ she said. “They have spinning wheels and lights that are flashing. Is that not an electromechanical simulation of a slot machine?” Lamb said that’s not something the state racing commission has looked into. Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, said when the idea for betting on “historical racing” was presented to lawmakers two years ago, they were told that bettors would see odds and select horses, “so it is a game of skill, just like live horse racing.” But now, he said, the machines appear to just display spinning reels and either pay out or not. “I’ve seen nowhere for that ability for a player to assess by skill who’s going to win a particular race,” he said. Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said she recently visited Les Bois Park racetrack in Boise. “I walked into what looked like a casino to me,” she said. “I was mesmerized by the cherries, not necessarily the horse race.” Barbieri said he supports “historical racing” – betting on replays of past horse races – and the funds it raises for Idaho’s horse industry, but is concerned that the way the law has been implemented violates the Idaho Constitution’s ban on slot machines. “If we’re going to allow gambling, let’s change the Constitution,” Barbieri said. “I’m OK with that, I have no objection to that, but changing the Constitution is going to be very difficult.” A Senate committee is scheduled to consider the same rule on Friday, along with a proposal to repeal the 2013 law.