Agreement reached on horse racing, Indian gaming bill

Tuesday, January 20th 2004, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Gov. Brad Henry said Tuesday an agreement has been reached to allow three horse racetracks in Oklahoma to install electronic gaming machines similar to those operated at tribal casinos.

Legislation to implement the agreement will save jobs and produce additional revenue for education and other services, Henry said.

``It will provide a boost to the economy,'' he said.

The governor's office had no immediate projection on how much money the plan would raise, but Scott Meacham, director of the Office of State Finance, has said it could raise $70 million to $80 million.

The agreement was reached after months of negotiations between representatives of the governor's office, racetrack owners, Indian tribes and the horse industry.

Henry called the agreement a compromise which will be put into legislation for action when the Legislature convenes Feb. 2.

``This legislation will help save jobs and produce new funding for education,'' he said. ``It will save one industry, the horse industry, and allow the state to regulate and share in the revenue of another, tribal gaming.''

A tribal gaming bill passed the Oklahoma Senate late in the 2003 legislative session, but died after opposition in the House, where Republican leaders said it would expand gambling and pave the way for Las Vegas-style gambling in the state.

Henry, a Democrat, said the plan ``would not bring Las Vegas-style casino gaming to Oklahoma. It would simply address the same type of games that have been played at tribal casinos across the state.''

Rep. Forrest Claunch, R-Midwest City, disagreed and said Henry is bent on allowing electronic games at horse racetracks that have been deemed illegal by the National Indian Gaming Commission.

``They are just slot machines. They are just Las Vegas-style slot machines,'' Claunch said.

Claunch, an ardent foe of gambling, said policy-makers should concentrate instead on ways to slow the expansion of what he labeled as ``illegal'' games being played at casinos.

``The state Senate will pass it in a breeze,'' he said of the latest gaming proposal. He said it would face a much tougher test in the House.

Oklahoma voters approved pari-mutuel horse race betting in 1982, but in recent years, the industry has been in decline, with purses and attendance dwindling at horse racetracks, including Remington Park in Oklahoma City.

Officials say New Mexico's racetrack industry also sagged in recent years, but was revived after passage of legislation to put the tracks and tribes on equal footing on electronic gaming.

Henry said he wants a similar turnaround to help the ailing horse industry.

``Oklahoma has gaming in more than 80 tribal casinos across the state,'' he said. ``It's not going away. We can stick our heads in the sand and pretend it doesn't exist or we can regulate it, produce some new funding for education and save our horse industry in the process,'' he said.

``I would prefer to take the lead and do something positive rather than sit idly by and watch Oklahoma lose tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue,'' he added.

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