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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Heart-warming ad misleads in initiative campaign

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)

Amid heart-warming pictures of Idahoans working with horses and enjoying the excitement of horse racing – and the jarring sight of the now-closed Les Bois Park racetrack, empty – a new campaign commercial airing statewide urges Idaho voters to back Proposition 1 on the November ballot.

But the commercial never says what the ballot measure would do: Reauthorize betting terminals at Idaho racetracks that state legislators initially authorized in 2013, then backtracked on, saying they’d been misled into approving something very much like slot machines.

Instead, the ad says, “The horses are off the track, thanks to the politicians when they killed off Idaho horse racing, along with the local jobs and school funding racing provides. So let’s set things right by voting yes on Proposition 1.”

“It is misleading, because if you didn’t know much about the issue and watched this ad, then you could leave with a very different idea of actually what the ballot measure is doing,” Boise State University political scientist Jaclyn Kettler said.

She said the ad, which is being run by the Campaign to Save Idaho Horse Racing, follows a “smart tactic” by focusing on school funding – something Idahoans broadly support – rather than expansion of gambling, which is more controversial.

Jasper LiCalzi, a College of Idaho professor of political economy, agreed. “I think most people would look at it and say, ‘Oh, the state Legislature has outlawed horse racing in the state,’ because that’s kind of the impression it gives.

“Whoever’s doing this, they didn’t just fall off the potato truck. They knew what they were doing.”

The ad successfully frames the debate about the ballot measure, early on, focusing it on jobs and education rather than gambling, he said.

Idaho lawmakers passed a law in 2013 to allow “instant racing” or “historical horse racing” machines at Idaho racetracks, after being assured they’d be no different from the current betting that’s allowed in Idaho on simulcasts of horse races being held elsewhere, except that the races in question already would have occurred.

Instead, the betting machines turned out to have spinning reels, blinking lights, and just a tiny screen in one corner depicting the final seconds of a horse race. Angry lawmakers – including some who oppose gambling on moral grounds – said they’d been “duped.”

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, which like other Idaho Indian tribes operates casinos, also objected, and pushed for repeal of the law in 2015. The repeal bill passed, and a belated veto from Gov. Butch Otter led to a court fight, but the veto was overturned and the machines went dark at the three Idaho locations where they’d been installed. The largest, Les Bois Park, not only shut down its 200 betting machines, it closed its doors entirely, ending live horse racing. That was in September 2015.

But there were still nine locations in Idaho running live horse racing in 2016, the most recent year for which reports are available from the state Racing Commission; those had 25 race days. This year, according to the commission, 27 race days are authorized.

“It’s not a perfect conclusion to say that without these machines, horse racing can’t exist in Idaho,” Kettler said.

Todd Dvorak, spokesman for the Campaign to Save Idaho Horse Racing, noted that without Les Bois, the number of live horse racing days in Idaho has dwindled. In 2003, according to state Racing Commission records, there were 82 days of live horse racing in Idaho.

“It’s in a state of decline,” Dvorak said. “That repeal vote closed the doors at Les Bois. And that was the busiest horse track in the state. … There’s a real trickle-down that we’re seeing. Horse racing is on life support.

“Prop. 1 would legalize historic horse racing terminals. And revenue from betting on HHR is critical to reviving and restoring and creating a healthy and vibrant live horse racing industry.”

Without big money for purses, Idaho’s live horse races aren’t as competitive, and fewer competitive racers want to bring their horses here to compete, Dvorak said. That in turn means fewer jobs at Idaho racetracks, and also throughout the related horse industry, from veterinarians to farriers to horse breeders, trainers and feed and tack sellers.

“There’s a whole economy that once was a lot more healthy around Idaho’s horse racing industry than it is now,” he said.

A 2015 study by BSU professor emeritus Don Holley, an economist, estimated that continued operation of Les Bois Park at its 2015 levels would support more than 500 jobs in the Treasure Valley, twice the number of those employed there directly, and would significantly impact the valley’s economy.

Dvorak said the campaign, which is largely funded by the former operators of Les Bois Park, is running its 30-second TV commercial statewide, including in the Boise, Idaho Falls and Spokane broadcast TV markets, and also displaying it online.

Asked why the ad doesn’t mention the betting terminals the measure would authorize, Dvorak said, “Our message is that this is all about restoring and reviving Idaho’s horse racing industry. And that’s the objective of this campaign. It’s no secret that the ballot initiative has to do with the question of legalizing historic horse racing terminals.

“Really, it’s a question of do you want to revive this industry that has been so important to Idaho, rural Idaho and families for a long time? And to get there, we need the revenue source from historic horse racing terminals.”

Kettler said the ads could make a difference.

“Research finds that advertising and spending on ballot measure initiatives can be influential,” she said. “It can raise turnout, it can increase voter support for the initiative.”

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