The fight over Idaho’s faltering horse racing industry is building into face-off between the Legislature and the governor’s office.
Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill emailed Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s office, including Chief of Staff Dave Hensley, on Tuesday asking if he really wanted the Idaho Racing Commission to have a “showdown” over lucrative betting machines known as instant horse racing terminals. The two-line email included a link to a news report of the Texas Legislature defunding its own state racing commission for bringing back instant horse racing without legislative approval.
“Here’s how Texas is handling the commission’s defiance of the Legislature,” Hill wrote.
Instant horse racing allows bettors to place wagers on prior horse races that are videotaped with no identifiable information about the horses or results. The machines are seen as the key tools to bringing cash back into the horse racing industry – which has struggled to remain competitive against online gaming and other forms of gambling.
However, two years after giving approval, the Idaho Legislature banned the practice because some lawmakers felt they had been duped into legalizing slot machines.
Otter then unsuccessfully vetoed the repeal legislation. At the time, Otter said he felt Idaho’s Western culture was at stake and urged the Legislature to find a compromise that would allow horsemen to continue their livelihood that included instant racing. The Idaho Supreme Court later ruled that Otter waited too long to veto the repeal.
Now there’s talk of reviving the practice through a rule-making process, which would require the governor’s approval.
Administrative rules are created by executive agencies to enforce state laws and carry the same weight as laws. Agencies such as the racing commission can approve temporary rules if they meet certain criteria and are approved by the governor’s office – but all temporary rules need legislative approval to remain in effect long-term.
The racing commission met earlier this week to talk about the possible rule approval but held off from making a final decision.
Otter said that he hasn’t seen the temporary rule proposed by the commission, but added that he supports discussions around reviving the industry.
“There’s got to be an element of fairness,” Otter said. “We are trying to make a case to save horse racing.”
Yet the discussion has lawmakers on edge, wondering whether the racing commission, including the governor’s office, is trying to find a way to go around the Legislature.
Hill said Thursday that his focus is on the separation of powers.
“This is no longer about instant racing. This is about protecting the constitution,” he said. “The governor has a cause he feels strongly about. But I just caution, though, about not getting ahead of the process.”
Otter said he disagrees with lawmakers who say the discussion is an attempt to get around the Legislature’s decision.
In the meantime, no bills coming from the governor’s office are being held hostage, Hill said, adding that he met with Hensley earlier that day and everything remains amicable.