The ongoing battle over appropriate Indian gambling is once again coming to a head in the Idaho Legislature, with both sides preparing to rip open old wounds.
Rep. Tom Loertscher, a Republican from Iona, introduced legislation Wednesday that would ban lucrative video gambling terminals inside the tribes' casinos. The proposal was tepidly accepted by the House State Affairs Committee, with some lawmakers raising concerns about the ripple effects of the bill.
"We've been bothered by several gambling issues over the last few years," said Loertscher, chairman of the House panel. "This is a major policy thing that we need to address."
The move comes two years after lawmakers banned the use of so-called historical horse racing due to fears that the electronic betting machines resembled slot machines. The repeal effort generated outrage from the horse racing industry. It claimed the tribes were unfairly trying to squelch competition because they have a monopoly on video gambling in Idaho.
Yet the fight over Indian gambling has been a sore subject since 1988 when the Idaho Lottery was established.
Under federal Indian gambling law, Idaho tribes can only operate their own bingo and lottery operations as long as the state has already authorized that form of gambling. This has created lingering tension between the state and tribes over what types of gambling devices are legal.
According to the tribes, they operate what the state allows: A video form of the state lottery.
However, prolonged disagreement led the tribe to successfully push a 2002 ballot initiative amending Idaho's law to say as long as the tribe's machines do not have a lever or dispense coins — only cash out tickets— then the machines could not be defined as a slot machines and are not a simulation of casino gambling.
Then in 2006, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the tribes' ability to offer video gambling devices after the state sued. The court's decision also influenced a 2009 ruling where the Idaho Supreme Court declared Idaho could no longer sue regarding the constitutionality of the tribes' machines.
Loertscher's bill would remove a key section of the law amended in 2002 so that even if the tribe's machines do not have a lever or dispense coins, they would still be banned from possessing slot machines. It's a subtle difference, but one that would could potentially upend the entire system.
"This issue has been addressed in the judicial branch and now they want to get the Legislature involved," said House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, who said he only voted to introduce the proposal to learn more about the issue. "I'm not convinced that's going to happen."
Other lawmakers contend that the Idaho Constitution outlaws casino-style gambling but claim tribes are violating that ban due to a loophole in the law.
"We simply can't have any statute that would attempt to override the constitution," said Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, who has supported other efforts to limit gambling in Idaho this year.
For the tribes, the issue comes down to protecting their sovereignty.
"This is highly unnecessary," said Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer, a member of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, who voted against introducing Loertscher's bill. "I don't believe this bill will make it out of committee and I would urge the chairman to reread our laws."
A full hearing for the bill has not been scheduled.