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Group announces instant racing bill; hearing blocked so far

Racehorses at the race track that sits in the heart of Garden City. File photo

Racehorses at the race track that sits in the heart of Garden City. File photo

A coalition of Idaho’s horsemen groups say their best hope to avoid financial ruin can’t even get out of the gate because lawmakers are unwilling to consider reapproving lucrative betting machines known as instant racing.

The Idaho Horsemen’s Coalition announced Feb. 23 a proposal that would create a state gaming commission to license and regulate electronic gaming while also permitting instant racing terminals to operate in Idaho. The bill would not include oversight of the state lottery, but it would regulate tribal gaming.

“It is our hope and expectation to get this proposal to the Senate floor for a fair debate and vote and begin a controlled process to bring live horse racing back,” said Monty Arrossa, a member of the coalition.

Instant horse racing allows bettors to place wages on prior horse races with no identifiable information. The terminals have spinning wheels, sounds and animations that mimic slot machines. But unlike the one-armed bandits, supporters say the machines use a legal pari-mutuel betting system — which pits bettors against each other and gives the house a percentage of the winnings. Profits from the machines were then divided among the tracks and horsemen groups.

Lawmakers legalized the machines in 2013, but they then quickly repealed that move last year after many said they had been duped into approving cleverly designed slot-machines.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter — a longtime supporter of the horsemen’s industry — then attempted to veto the repeal law, but the Idaho Supreme Court eventually ruled that the Republican governor failed to complete a veto on time.

The court’s decision was considered a blow to Idaho’s horse racing industry. After years of failing to compete with the state lottery and other forms of new gambling options, the profitable betting machines were seen as the only viable option to provide enough revenue to subsidize the industry.

“Live racing frankly doesn’t pencil out,” said Ken Burgess, a lobbyist for the coalition.

Yet despite drafting a bill, the horsemen’s coalition has not been unable to secure a legislative hearing. That’s because Senate leaders helped lead the repeal effort last year, and most lawmakers have shown no signs of being willing to change their minds.

Furthermore, just two lawmakers were present during the announcement Feb. 23 to show their support.

“If you don’t want gambling, I can bring a bill for that,” said Rep. Christy Perry, a Republican from Nampa who was at the announcement. “If you don’t want gambling, take it all out. But if you’re going to allow gambling, you have to be fair about it.”

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