Here’s why what happens in Boise is so important—and so scary: Right now, legislators are deciding, quite literally, whether dozens of employees of businesses throughout the state will have a job later this year; whether millions of dollars in planned capital purchases will go forward or not; whether an entire business model that’s generating economic output that benefits communities in the state will be allowed to survive.
I’m talking about Senate Bill 1011, which would reverse the Legislature’s decision of a couple of years ago allowing “historical horse racing” to continue in our state. Historical horse racing, in case you haven’t followed this issue, is where people are able to use a machine terminal to place bets on horse races that took place in the past. The terminal operator sees stats about the horses and jockeys, and other information to place a bet, but information about where and when the race occurred is not displayed. Players use the information to pick winners the way they do with live races.
After the terminals were installed at locations in Post Falls, Boise and Idaho Falls, officials from Idaho’s Indian tribes complained that the machines are too much like slot machines, in violation of the state constitution’s ban on casino gambling. The tribes, of course, aren’t interested in defending the state constitution. Rather, they’re defending their monopoly on casino gambling, allowed through federal law that makes them immune to the state’s casino gambling prohibitions.
Whether the historical horse racing terminals violate the state constitution was the heated source of debate and conversation throughout two days of testimony in front of the Senate State Affairs Committee. Horse racing defenders say the machines are legal but designed to appeal with their lights, spinning wheels and music. Opponents say they’re the same as slot machines, random and requiring no skill, and therefore illegal.
The Senate panel voted 8-1 to send the bill to the full Senate. Some lawmakers are upset because they think they were duped into supporting historical horse racing without realizing that the terminals share a lot of the characteristics of illegal slot machines.
I do not know the nature of the machines as it applies to the restrictions in the state constitution. And a legislative hearing is not the place to draw those answers. A court is. And if lawmakers allowed the legal system to decide the status of historical horse racing, not only might the court draw some conclusions that would be useful, but it might give historical horse racing a chance at due process. (It should also be noted that the Legislature has a conflict of interest; the state runs a state lottery in competition with the marketplace).
Idaho lawmakers are threatening to end an industry and the people associated with it. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the Legislature, not the industry. And, so far, nothing I’ve heard convinces me lawmakers have a lock on the issue. The conclusion that historical horse racing is in violation of the state constitution is a case built on the shaky foundation of supposition, market protectionism and objection to gambling in all its forms.
Millions of dollars are on the line. Jobs are at stake, jobs belonging to real people who are merely trying to earn a living so that they can pay their mortgages and feed their families. Those individuals who depend and are benefited by this industry deserve more than a rush to judgment. Lawmakers should remember who they’re really impacting as they weigh the future of historical horse racing in our state.