Take a step back in time to 2013, when Idaho state lawmakers were presented with a proposal from the state’s Racing Commission to extend the legalities of certain forms of gambling. At that time, legislators voted in favor of permitting ‘historic racing’ games meant to proffer skill-based gambling that mimics live racing. But instead, many officials fear the end result was little more than myriad slot machines being made available across the state.
The Constitution of Idaho clearly prohibits slot machines, as Rep. Gayle Batt (R-Wilder) pointed out at yesterday morning’s House State Affairs Committee meeting, where an amendment to the existing ‘historic racing’ rule was slated for discussion. Rep. Batt read from the second paragraph of Article III, Section 20, which prohibits all forms of gambling that “employ any electronic or electromechanical imitation or simulation of any form of casino gambling.” But that wasn’t the original issue up for debate.
On the table form the Idaho Racing Commission is a new proposal that would restrict these ‘historic racing’ games to venues that have held a simulcasting license for at least one year. Simulcasting is providing bets on live races that are being broadcast from another location. At present, there are just three simulcasting venues in Idaho that qualify, and all three happen to be the only locations that have already installed the historic racing games.
The panel’s discussion took a lengthy turn when lawmakers turned the focus from limiting the availability of these devices, to whether they are even constitutional to begin with. As Rep. Batt pointed out after reciting the Constitution’s gambling prohibitions, the historic racing devices now available in Idaho “do pretty much look like slot machines. They have spinning wheels and lights that are flashing. Is that not an electromechanical simulation of a slot machine?”
Rep. Vito Barbieri (R-Dalton Gardens) concurred. He said that when the bill was proposed two years ago, lawmakers were told the historic racing games would offer bettors odds and a selection of horses, “so it is a game of skill, just like live horse racing.”
Instead, Rep. Barbieri said what the state got was unauthorized slot machines; reel-based gambling devices where a button is pressed and a payout either occurs, or it doesn’t. He’s witnessed no evidence that these games offer the “ability for a player to assess by skill who’s going to win a particular race.”
Rep. Melissa Wintrow (D-Boise) also agreed with that assessment. She told the panel that she recently paid a visit to Les Boise Park, a racetrack in Boise that offers the questionable historic racing games. “I walked into what looked like a casino to me. I was mesmerized by the cherries, not necessarily the horse race,” said Wintrow.
Due to the controversy over the historic racing games being slot machines, the panel decided it was impossible to vote on the current proposal at this time. Instead, they would need to debate the legitimacy of the historic racing games, and potentially the desirability of legalizing slot machines in Idaho.
Rep. Barbieri said he is in favor of keeping the gambling devices, whether they are deemed slot machines or not, based on the substantial revenue they’ve helped to generate. “If we’re going to allow gambling, let’s change the Constitution,” he said. “I’m okay with that, I have no objection to that, but changing the Constitution is going to be very difficult.”
The committee decided not to vote on the new proposal just yet, instead reconvening in one week. They hope to gather more information on the matter, including results from an ongoing police investigation in Post Falls where authorities are exploring whether Greyhound Park’s historic racing devices are illegal slot machines.