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Idaho government responsible for racing industry's demise

Idaho government responsible for racing industry's demise

Wayne Hoffman
September 11, 2015
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September 11, 2015

I’m fond of saying Idaho government officials adamantly support free enterprise, except for when they don’t. The narrative of state politicians is that they believe unequivocally in limited government, and they’ll fight tirelessly to defend the same each and every day. You’ll have to keep telling yourself that when you read stories in the coming weeks about how the horse industry in the state is folding and people are being laid off because the state Legislature voted to outlaw historical horse racing terminals that lawmakers authorized to be installed just two years ago.

The Legislature voted earlier this year to end historical horse racing on the grounds that the terminals that had been installed violated the state constitution’s gambling prohibition. Gov. Butch Otter vetoed the Legislature’s bill, but his staff was too cute by half and returned the governor’s veto to the Senate a day late, prompting the state Supreme Court to rule the veto invalid Thursday. That ruling means the millions of dollars invested in historical horse racing will be flushed down the drain. The people employed at horse racing venues in Idaho will likely lose their jobs. An entire industry is in jeopardy.  

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The money that might have been spent benefiting Idaho’s economy at local Idaho horse racing venues won’t be. Terminals that allowed people to bet on the outcome of historical horse races will be unplugged, and maybe you’ll see videos on TV or photos in the newspaper of the equipment being wheeled away or disassembled. But the real, tangible impacts won’t be captured in those images. You likely won’t see the very real people—Idaho friends and family and neighbors—who will be fired, join the unemployment line, added to the food stamp rolls and the welfare programs; newspapers and politicians will forget the real people who perhaps won’t be able to afford Christmas presents for their children, won’t be able to pay their mortgages or will have to uproot their families to relocate to find work.

Idaho lawmakers will defend their actions. They’ll claim that historical horse racing is over because proponents embellished what historical horse racing terminals looked like. But horse racing entrepreneurs will tell you, quite accurately, that they never got a chance to defend their actions in court. Did the terminals they installed really violate the state Constitution’s prohibition on gambling? Lawmakers denied these entrepreneurs the right to due process. Instead, they sided with anti-gambling and tribal special interests, the latter of whom were only interested in preserving their own gambling monopoly.

The court’s invalidation of the Otter veto ends historical horse racing and deals a sizable blow to the horse industry. It also reinforces the notion that government is nothing if not the use of force. In this case, the Legislature used its force to shut down a type of business, with very real untold consequences for the people who depend on that business for paychecks, and greater yet-unrealized impacts on the industry that depended on that business as a source of revenue.

Your state Legislature did this. An action in defense of free enterprise? I think not. If you’re not impacted, you might not care. But you might consider asking yourself whether your business and your livelihood could next be at the mercy of Idaho’s “pro-free enterprise” Legislature.  

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