I’m not a big fan of most initiatives and referenda. In other states (looking at you, California) voter initiatives have become a staple of the Left. The ballot box has been used to raid the public treasury and create unsustainable, misguided government programs that have the veil of popular support and, therefore, protection, even to the detriment of other needs. In Idaho, Proposition 2, the Obamacare expansion, is exactly that type of ill-conceived public policy that threatens to drain the state budget, hinder economic opportunity, and harm those in need.
Initiatives do have a place when they: rein in government, stop government overreach, and correct injustices perpetrated by politicians or their handlers. That’s what Proposition 1 does: It attempts to save a sector of the economy the politicians have nearly destroyed. Proposition 1 seeks to right a wrong, an injustice manifested at the hands of Boise lawmakers and special interest groups. It seeks to revive the state’s horse industry, which, at its core, is as much a part of Idaho’s culture as clean water, safe communities, and a free economy.
Horse racing in Idaho used to generate millions of dollars in revenue each year. And the industry brought with it ancillary benefits including the employment of horse trainers, jockeys, and veterinarians, benefits from the sale of feed, and the lodging of visitors to our state.
But in the late 1980s, the state created a lottery, and that started the financial hemorrhaging that practically brought down Idaho’s iconic horse industry. By 2009, live horse racing was generating around $900,000 in revenue, 10 percent of what it was producing 30 years before. Government is not all to blame for the industry’s problems but, to be sure, the decline of horse racing was exacerbated by government.
In 2013, to help the ailing industry, the Idaho Legislature approved a bill to allow historical horse racing. Historical horse racing is a type of gambling wherein the bettor sits at a terminal and watches a video snippet of a horse race from the past and then places a bet on the outcome of the race. The decision to allow historical horse racing helped stop the bleed out and allowed race tracks to survive. The industry installed millions of dollars in equipment and began hiring again. Historical horse racing was generating the economic activity and viability it had not seen in years. The industry was given a second chance at life..
However, just two years later, in 2015, Idaho’s Indian tribes claimed that horse tracks were using a form of gambling banned by the Idaho Constitution. It’s a fascinating argument, considering that Idaho’s tribes own and operate casinos with actual slot machines, which are based entirely on chance and where the house usually wins. That’s clearly unconstitutional, unlike historical horse racing terminals where bettors bet against one another in a pool, and most of the wagers are returned to the bettors.
(Please note: Should Proposition 1 pass, at least 90 percent of the bets will be returned to bettors. That’s the definition of parimutuel betting as allowed by the state constitution.)
Still, the tribes formed a powerful special interest bloc, which included anti-gambling organizations, and successfully convinced the 2015 Legislature to pull the plug on historical horse racing. That action denied the equine industry a chance for a fair hearing on the legality of historical horse racing. It forced them to mothball their terminals, close Les Bois Park, and lay off hundreds of employees across the state, including ordinary Idahoans with kids to feed and mortgages to pay. The tribes got to keep their casinos; they and the state lottery now have a monopoly on gambling.
In 2015, the politicians in Boise denied Idaho’s horse racing industry due process, guaranteed by both our state and federal constitutions.
That is why Proposition 1 matters. If Idahoans vote in favor of it, and I hope they do, they’ll be able to tell the politicians in Boise and their special interest friends that they were wrong to deny Idaho’s equine industry due process. Most importantly, voters will throw a necessary lifeline to an industry that deserves better treatment than Idaho’s lawmakers have given it over the past several decades.