Think Out Loud

Oregon tribes respond to proposed betting machines in Grants Pass

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Jan. 18, 2022 4:44 p.m. Updated: Jan. 26, 2022 12 a.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Jan. 18

Dutch Bros founder Travis Boersma wants to build a luxury dining and drinking facility with betting machines that he says would help make horse racing at Grants Pass Downs viable. Oregon’s indigenous tribes say the “Historical Horse Racing” gambling terminals take business away from tribal casinos and shouldn’t be approved. We talk to Justin Martin, member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, about the HHR machines, the oversight of the Oregon Racing Commission and the way the state currently regulates gambling.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: Dutch Brothers co-founder Travis Boersma has a plan to increase the profile and also the purses for horse racing at Grants Pass Downs. He wants to create a full-fledged entertainment complex for adults with dining and drinking and betting machines, lots of them. 225. We talked to Boersma about his plans on Friday. Today, we’re going to get another perspective because this plan has gotten a lot of pushback from sovereign tribal governments. Oregon’s indigenous tribes say that “Historical Horse Racing” gambling terminals should never have been allowed in the past in Oregon and should not be approved going forward. Justin Martin is a member of and a lobbyist for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and the manager of the Oregon Tribal Gaming Alliance and he joins us now. For the people who didn’t hear our conversation on Friday or want a refresher, can you describe these games? What are the terminals at the heart of this disagreement?

Justin Martin: I think it’s important for us just to be honest. These are slot machines. And matter of fact, Travis [Boersma] said so on your program last week.

Miller: He did. But it was slightly more complicated than that. He didn’t disagree that, from a player’s perspective, these games are the same as slot machines - that they look the same and they play the same. But his point was that the player’s perspective isn’t the key perspective here for talking about Oregon law because the difference is on the back end and the algorithms and the computers and what they’re doing. Basically what I heard is that these games capitalize on a kind of agreed upon loophole in the law because technically players are not playing against the house. They’re playing against versions of each other. And the technical term is pari mutuel gaming. What’s your response to that?

Martin: Well, first and foremost, I would say that’s a pretty technical dance around the reality that these are slot machines. And I think it’s unfortunate that this issue, which is of concern not only to tribes but the entire public, has devolved into a political fight where misinformation is being distributed in a way that’s not based on truth. Or [it] completely disregards the tribal government-to-government process and our tribal history first, which was one of abuse as everybody knows.

And second, in more recent years, [it is] one that’s been really all about positive contributions that we, the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon, have made to this state over the past 30 years. So all we really want is for Oregon to honor its commitments to us tribes and to all Oregon citizens by following the law. We’re just asking for a pause here. We want to take a pause. We want to create a joint committee. We want everybody including Grants Pass Downs, The Flying Lark, responsible gaming advocates to be in one room or in front of a legislative body, to sit down and get this right.

The reality is the Oregon way as a lifelong Oregonian, has always been to come together and we figure this out in the best interest of the state. 25 years ago, we had a task force like that [which] gathered everybody into the room. As you know, and as everybody knows, technology certainly has evolved over 25 years. A lot of us didn’t have cell phones then. Or maybe we had a brick or a clamshell phone. But the reality is technology has evolved so rapidly in this industry. We just want to take a pause and have everybody sit down and work this through and do it the right way.

Miller: One of the points that Boersma made is that you’re asking him to be treated differently from Portland Meadows. And he points to the fact that from 2015 to 2019, there were 150 of these terminals in place at the Portland Racetrack. And his argument is that if the state let these machines exist in Portland, then there’s no justification for not having them be approved for use in Grants Pass. How do you respond to that point?

Martin: Well, these are completely different machines. If the argument in 2014 and 2015 was that we need these machines to keep horse racing alive, well, that didn’t happen. So why, eight or nine years later all of a sudden, would these machines help at a facility in Grants Pass?

Miller: Well, those are different points. I want to go back to the first point you made because this is something that he pushed back against. I asked specifically, ‘are you proposing to use different machines in Grants Pass than they used in Portland two years ago?’ And the metaphor he came up with is that they’re not different in any important way. Like with iPhones that just look a little bit better or have a few more bells and whistles, it’s essentially the same thing. Are you saying that you know that he’s actually gonna be using fundamentally different technology than was used in Portland two years ago?

Martin: Yeah, there was no “Wheel of Fortune”. There was no “Pirates of the Caribbean”. These were actual horse races on a machine in a cabinet that I watched and played. I mean, I think it would be interesting for the audience to note that we are not opposed to horse racing at all. None of the tribes in Oregon are opposed to this. We want to see the horse racing industry thrive. We want to see this continue. We just think there’s other ways to go about that. And the reality is technology has gotten so advanced that you cannot tell the difference between a Historical Horse Race machine which plays the same game that’s offered in a casino environment versus those games from back then, which were totally different. We’ve got to be honest here. These are slot machines. That’s the only way that this would potentially work in a different environment.

Miller: Is it fair to say though? I’ve run either to quotes or to ideas put forward by Travis Boersma on the show last week, and you obviously have push back. But is it fair to say that your biggest issue is not with this one person at all but rather with the state?


Martin: I think that’s absolutely fair. I have a ton of respect for Travis, the work he does around ALS and the business he has built. My father passed away from ALS and the money he’s been able to raise for that cause and the awareness he’s been able to raise around that cause has just been tremendous. So kudos to him on that. This is not about him.

This is about how we see the future for gaming in Oregon. And as we all know, gambling in Oregon is governmental. It’s the state lottery, which is the largest casino in the state by far, which funds K-12 education, water parks and wildlife, economic development, and veterans programs. And it’s about tribal governmental gaming. Our revenues go to fund health care, education, housing, public safety, all while lessening the burden on the state.

So all we’re asking for is a pause here. Let’s bring everybody to the table. Let’s have a true and honest discussion about what’s going on. Let’s figure out how to save the horse racing industry. But let’s also not damage what Oregon tribes have been able to accomplish over the past 25 years, which is self-sufficiency and, again, lessening that burden on state government. And we can coexist.

Miller: We want to be clear, you’re not just asking for a pause, right? You’re asking for a pause at the end of which you are strenuously asking for the state to say no to these terminals. It’s not just a pause. There’s an agreed upon outcome that you have in mind.

Martin: There’s a couple of things. One, the Secretary of State is currently doing an audit, looking at the Oregon Racing Commission. This isn’t a criticism of that commission, but it’s going to be reflective of why the state needs to slow things down. The Department of Justice is also looking at the legal issues that surround this. We know that technology has evolved. That’s why we want to sit back and take a look at this. So there are things that we really need to look at. The state lottery itself said, we’re going to take a pause in looking at doing mobile gambling. And so we’re just saying, ‘hey, let’s all sit down together, take this pause and do this the Oregon way, which is bringing everybody to the table and having that conversation around what is in the best interest for all’.

Miller: Do you have an estimate for how much money tribal governments in Oregon stand to lose if these gaming machines were to be put in Grants Pass?

Martin: Yeah, we did a study ourselves, because the state hadn’t done one nor have the proponents done one, that shows what the impact will be to us, prior to any discussions. But we’ve shown early estimates will be $6-$12 million dollars to Oregon lottery retailers in and around that area. So what we’re saying is, ‘let’s take a look at the whole picture, let’s figure out how this doesn’t impact one entity over the other’. Again, it’s not new revenue that will be coming in here. This is redistributed revenue and I think that’s a very important concept to look at.

Miller: Let me make sure I understand that you’re saying when you’ve had the analysis done, you’re not assuming that these games would create new gamblers or get existing gamblers to spend more money. The assumption instead is that there’s a finite pot of betting money in this state. And if it’s going to go to what’s essentially a slot machine attached to a horse track, it’s not going to go to a lottery terminal in a bar or to a tribally run casino. Is that what you’re saying?

Martin: That’s correct. It’s just a redistribution of wealth. So our concern is why should we redistribute wealth or revenue away from tribal government and state government and put it in the pocket of an individual. Now, we’re more than willing to be at the table to have the discussion on how we keep the horse racing industry alive. And again, Grand Ronde has been a supporter of Portland Meadows and sponsored events there for multiple years. We want to see horse racing continue and thrive. We just want to do it in a legal way.

Miller: I want to play you something that Travis Boersma said near the end of our interview, let’s have a listen.

Travis Boersma: I think tribes actually can benefit by this. I think there could be a deal to be had where they could own invest, be a part of it. And this is something that actually could give them more market share. And I have been forthcoming with that from the very beginning and willing to have conversations with tribes and how this could be a difference maker. I’m doing this to be a bridge builder for the state, to be a bridge builder for tribes and to really be a force for good.

Miller: I followed up with him to ask what he meant by being a bridge builder. And this is what he said.

Boersma: You know, as tribes go about their way and they have their methodology in their sovereign nation. And I have such respect for tribes. I think about how some of them are at odds with one another in how there’s this battle with the state in the lottery and this turf war for market share. I think there’s a way for this to really be something that everybody should come to the table with and try to figure out a way to work together.

Miller: Justin Martin, what’s your response to all of that?

Martin: Well, again, with all due respect to Travis, I think it’s kind of a paternalistic view of tribes and ‘we know what’s best for tribes’. The reality is we’re self sufficient. We can figure out what’s best for us. We’re always willing to sit at a table and talk things through and figure out how this impacts, not just tribal members, but how this impacts us as citizens of Oregon and the entire state of Oregon. In terms of tribal governments having disagreements, all governments have disagreements, right? Washington and Oregon don’t always get along. Idaho and Oregon don’t always get along. Marion County and Harney County don’t always get along. So that’s nothing new in the world of government. The reality is we need to sit down and figure this out in a way that makes sense for everyone.

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