Cowboy Butch

Why is Governor Butch Otter so persistent in supporting Idaho's tiny horse-racing industry?

Idaho's governor, Butch Otter, was firmly put down by the Idaho Supreme Court in a case brought by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. In a decision released in September, the justices unanimously agreed with the tribe that the governor just didn't hand his veto work in on time.

In the 2015 legislative session, advocates for the CdA Tribe convinced a healthy majority of legislators in both houses to repeal the two-year-old statute that legalized pari-mutuel betting on "historical" horse races. Unwisely, the horse-racing industry had installed poorly disguised slot machines instead of the classy historic videos they had promised. Legislators were mad that they had been duped by the horsey set. The governor vetoed the repeal, but was tardy in getting the veto message back to the Senate.

It's a somewhat confusing tale. The governor and his staff simply messed up. The court's decision showed that even governors have to play by the rules if the Constitution is in the mix.

And certainly the horsey folks were pushing their luck by not living up to their promises. Gambling is still a touchy subject in Idaho. Many Idahoans, especially Mormons, would simply like gambling to disappear. Casinos are tolerated because of their economic boost to the tribes — and because federal rules control tribal gaming.

The horse industry's wayward ways were brought to the attention of the legislature in January, and despite heavy lobbying by the horse-racing crowd, the repeal made it to the governor's desk after racking up comfortable margins in both the House and the Senate.

In his veto message, Governor Otter revealed his extraordinary commitment to horses, horse racing and to his longtime buddies in the horse-racing business. He wrote: "I am seeking an alternative capable of restoring confidence in horse racing as a legitimate and even ennobling industry."

Recently, Otter tipped his hand by issuing a press release suggesting he will work hard in the coming session to help the "ennobling" horse-racing industry.

Otter says he won't turn his back on an industry that "contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to our communities and economy." That statement greatly exaggerates the significance of horse racing in our spud state. From where we sit in North Idaho, horse racing doesn't touch the lives or fill the wallets of many Idahoans. To the contrary, it has been suggested that raising and running racehorses is an expensive hobby enjoyed by only a few wealthy people. And while the current slot-like machines are supposedly supporting the horse-racing tracks, it may be that the slots are simply making wealthy people wealthier.

So why is the governor willing to place so many of his political chips on this one narrow slice of the political wheel?

In his adult life, Butch Otter has always liked being a boots-and-saddles kind of guy. At heart, he's a cowboy. Butch did indeed pull himself up by his bootstraps; he can be proud of that. And he's definitely outgrown the "Mr. Tight Jeans" title that he won in 1992 at the Rockin' Rodeo Bar in Boise.

The horse racing crowd is made up of Butch Otter's friends, who have supported him in the many campaigns he has run over the past 40-some years. Butch was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1972 and has been in elected office most every year since. That's a lot of campaigns to finance, and the horse crowd has faithfully backed his campaign efforts. This may be payback time.

Horses were never my passion, not even as a pre-teenager when most girls want a horse of their own. But I agree that horses are beautiful animals, worthy of the brushing they receive from young girls and professional grooms.

I just want my governor to let those horses slip down on his priority list at a time when the state faces so many urgent needs. We have already lost millions of dollars because Idaho has not signed on for Medicaid reform; lives may also have been lost as a result. Our public schools have yet to catch up on the funding they lost in the recession years. Idaho is way behind most other states in early childhood and preschool programs. Improvements to the state's roads and bridges need to be carefully planned and budgeted. Our jails and prisons are crowded, and as a state we need to focus on updating our justice system. Planning for climate change, drought and more forest fires is begging serious attention.

The headlines say the governor wants our borders closed to humans: Syrian refugees. More than that, the governor wants to bring back the horse. He wants tomorrow to be yesterday.♦

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