Slot machines won’t save racing, opponents say

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If it looks like a slot machine, pays off like a slot machine and eats money like a slot machine, then it must be...

A duck. Or, as proponents for Proposition 1 will suggest, historical horse racing terminals.

Jonathan Krutz, who teaches economics and marketing at Boise State University, doesn’t buy that line. “What this proposal does is asking Idaho voters to legalize slot machines.” As he sees it, they’re essentially the same kind of push-button bandits that can be found in Las Vegas, Jackpot and the Coeur d’Alene Casino in Worley.

Sure, it’s possible for players of the historical races to analyze racing forms and bet on horses to win, place and show. It’s even possible to view full versions of a race. But that’s more than most people go through on a 25-cent bet.

“Nobody does that,” said Krutz, who said he observed gamblers when the machines were in use a few years ago at the Les Bois track in Garden City. “They were spinning the reels and hitting the button every five seconds. The fact that you could bet on a horse race on the machines is irrelevant to any gambling.”

The machines contain a small screen that shows the finish of a given race. But the quick flash hardly promoted appreciation for historical horse racing.

So … historical racing terminals are slot machines in Krutz’s book. And there’s a good chance that Proposition 1 will face a court challenge if it passes. Idaho’s constitution is clear: Gambling is allowed for a state lottery and pari-mutuel betting – meaning that live horse racing can happen anywhere in the state. Activities such as slot machines are specifically prohibited, except on the tribal lands.

Krutz and other opponents of the ballot initiative have no control over tribal gaming, but are doing everything they can to stop the ballot initiative – while going against a heavy advertising campaign to promote the proposition. That campaign, he says, is filled with deception. For instance, Idaho politicians did not specifically stop horse racing.

“Horse racing is legal in Idaho, and people can even bet on horses,” Krutz says. “So why aren’t they doing it? It’s because nobody is showing up to watch. It’s a dead business. So, the logic is, let’s subsidize this dead business with an unconstitutional and highly addictive activity.”

The initiative, pushed by Treasure Valley Racing, is aimed at bringing back living racing to Les Bois Park. But the machines could be installed at any facility that has at least eight racing dates scheduled – which could bring Sandy Downs of Idaho Falls into the picture if it adds more racing dates. Krutz says that communities, lured with the idea of boosting revenue, might want to put together eight racing days to give the historical terminals a try.

Another misconception, he says, is that historical racing will help education in Idaho. The revenue boost will be minimal, at best. He says that proponents freely talk about the revenue generated without discussing expenses – such as maintenance of the machines and overhead costs.

Krutz and others say that the economics don’t add up. The jobs created would be mostly low-wage, part-time, seasonal employment. It’s not the kind of industry that Idaho’s Department of Commerce is trying to attract.

Any cost benefits that could come from the machines could be offset by the human toll, Krutz says. “Slot machines make a lot of money, because they are highly addictive.”

Opponents point to studies that show at least one-third of money lost in slot machines come from addicted gamblers, and some of those gamblers have been known to steal money – or embezzle from employers – to get enough money to play the machines. Other studies show that bankruptcies, crime and suicides tend to spike in areas where gambling occurs.

Krutz acknowledges that opponents have their work cut out in their campaign against Proposition 1. But a victory for proponents may be short lived if the issue is tangled up in the courts.

“If you want to legalize slot machines, you have to change the constitution,” he says.

I wouldn’t expect the conservative-minded Idaho Legislature to take up that cause.

Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com

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