By RALPH BARTHOLDT
Organizers of a statewide ballot initiative that seeks to legalize the use of betting machines for wagering on past horse races hit a wall of resistance this week, according to organizers.
Over the past few weeks, organizers of the initiative have reported being bullied and intimidated by operatives hired by the North Idaho Voter Project, which is opposed to the initiative.
The Voter Project is a political action committee of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, which owns the Worley casino.
“This is a blatant attempt to disrupt and undermine the process of direct democracy by physically and verbally intimidating voters,” said Bruce Newcomb, chairman of the Save Idaho Horse Racing campaign, and a former speaker of the Idaho House.
Newcomb's group wants to overturn via initiative an earlier decision by the Idaho Legislature that outlawed historical horse racing gaming machines.
He blamed members of the North Idaho Voter Project of harassing and bullying signature gatherers, but Tyrel Stevenson, the Tribe's legislative director, said the accusations were false.
“We absolutely deny those claims,” Stevenson said Wednesday.
Stevenson, who acts as treasurer of the North Idaho Voter Project, says the group is mainly concerned with misinformation from the petition distributors.
“There's a lot of intentional misinformation out there,” Stevenson said. “All we're asking for is for them to tell the truth.”
The initiative, backed by Treasure Valley Racing, a group of longtime Idaho horse breeders and owners including rancher and philanthropist Harry Bettis, Linda Yanke of Boise's Yanke Machine Shop, Idaho Timber Co. founder Larry Williams and Agri-Beef Company's Robert Rebholtz Jr., wants to allow the betting machines — called slot machines by opponents — as a means to bolster earnings of live horse racing at Boise's Les Bois Racetrack.
The track was closed and 535 jobs were reportedly lost after the Legislature in 2015 outlawed historical horse racing machines on the pretense they were glorified slot machines, which are illegal in Idaho. A governor's veto was too late to overturn the measure.
Newcomb said live horse racing provided part of the income that kept the Les Bois track afloat, but the real money came from the historical racing or simulcast machines.
The machines allow betting on past horse races that are replayed via video without identifying information. Because they have sounds, lights and spinning wheels, the machines were deemed to too-closely resemble slot machines.
Estimates show that between 2014 and 2015, when the machines were legal, the Boise track saw wagers of around $2 million per week compared to $260,000 a week wagered on live races.
Without the added income from the simulcast machines, money distributed in part to the Idaho Race Horse Association to bolster purses at tracks throughout Idaho, purses were too slim, Newcomb said.
“Without the simulcast machines, it's not economically viable,” he said.
Stevenson, however, said billing historical horse racing as parimutuel betting, in which a pool of bettors wager on the same race, is a stretch. Idaho allows parimutuel betting if it doesn't involve electronic or “electromechanical imitation or simulation of any form of casino gambling.”
Stevenson said Idaho has a strong anti-gambling tradition, and the latest initiative seeks to end-run the law.
“They want to expand casino gambling across the state, any place that has live racing,” he said.
He accuses the Save Idaho Horse Racing campaign of misrepresenting the content of the petition, which he said is illegal.
If it is placed on the ballot and passes, Stevenson said, the initiative would allow Greyhound Park, the event center along Interstate 90 in Post Falls that is owned by out-of-state interests, to install historical horse racing machines.
Doug Okuniewicz of Coeur d'Alene Racing, which runs the Greyhound event center, said he isn't part of the campaign, but he would welcome the return of the machines.
“I believe under the proposed initiative, it would allow machines back into our location,” Okuniewicz said. “We're not involved with it … If it's on the ballot and voters vote for it, it would be fine if it passed.”
That's one of the problems with the initiative, Stevenson said. The Greyhound Park has never had live horse racing.
“This has nothing to do with horse racing,” he said. “It is about building casinos.”
A rancher who raises cutting horses, Newcomb's take is more parochial.
“I think it's an admirable endeavor,” he said.
Around 56,000 signatures, equal to 6 percent of registered voters in 18 of the state's 35 legislative districts, are required for statewide ballot initiatives to be considered by voters in 2018.