Language Amending HISA in Omnibus Spending Bill

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Draft language has been inserted into the full-year omnibus spending bill designed to fix a constitutional problem with the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) identified by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found in November that the law as written doesn't afford the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enough authority in the rule-making process.

In short, the draft omnibus spending bill cedes the FTC–the governmental agency which ultimately signs off on any new HISA rule–new autonomy to remove, add to and tweak language in the rules constructed by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, the private entity given broad umbrella power over implementing the act. Previously, the FTC could only accept or reject a proposed rule.

The FTC may now “abrogate, add to, and modify the rules of the Authority promulgated in accordance with this Act as the Commission finds necessary or appropriate to ensure the fair administration of the Authority, to conform the rules of the Authority to requirements of this Act and applicable rules approved by the Commission, or otherwise in furtherance of the purposes of this Act,” the language states.

The news was first reported by the Paulick Report. Lawmakers have until Friday to pass the spending bill before the make-up of Congress changes shape next year.

After this draft language was released, The National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) CEO Eric Hamelback and General Counsel Peter Ecabert released a joint statement, taking aim at legislation they say was “crafted in the dark of night with no public hearings and virtually no industry input.”

“This amendment does not address other substantive issues, nor does it address the funding disaster that remains in the flawed Act. It is clear from the issues raised in the various lawsuits contesting the legal validity of HISA that this one-sentence 'fix' does not alleviate the glaring constitutional infirmities this law has created.

“The constitutional defects still include a non-federal private entity granted the power to levy taxes in violation of Article I, Tenth Amendment violations for anti-commandeering of states powers, Fourth and Seventh Amendment violations for lack of due process, and violations of the Administrative Procedures Act,” wrote Hamelback and Ecabert.

Hamelback and Ecabert added that, “For all the reasons we state above, the Act itself remains unconstitutional by handing the regulation of an entire industry over to an unelected, unaccountable private corporation. This fight is not over, and the National HBPA will go all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to, in order to protect the interests of horsemen across the country.”

In a rare move for the chair of the HISA board of directors, Charles Scheeler issued his own statement Tuesday, addressing what he sees as “misinformation” about the law, in the process arguing that HISA's drug testing program protects “good-faith horsemen,” that HISA's rules “seek to protect” small racetracks and racing jurisdictions, and that HISA has “consistently sought feedback from horsemen” across the country.

“Some horsemen have recently expressed a desire to scrap the substantial progress made over the last two years and start from scratch on safety and integrity reform. But after failing for decades to create uniform standards, we've finally made real progress and have momentum. In fact, early indications suggest that racing is already getting safer for horses. Starting over would be to risk losing all of that,” wrote Scheeler.

“Getting a federal law passed was a monumental accomplishment, and the progress and momentum since then has been astounding. Thoroughbred racing must take advantage of this moment. Change can be uncomfortable and often comes with growing pains, but the future of the sport depends on its evolution. Let's find the courage to do this together,” Scheeler added.

The year-end omnibus spending bill left the Senate and House Appropriations Committees Tuesday morning, and must now be finalized before this Friday, to avert a governmental shut-down.

During that process, the amendment to HISA could still be removed, though sources say that is extremely unlikely. If this language remains in the bill, however, there are a few different scenarios at play.

Last week, FTC announced that it had disapproved “without prejudice” the program's anti-doping and medication control (ADMC) rules.

But with this new language, HISA could resubmit the ADMC rules with the FTC. It would then take approximately 60 days for these rules to go into effect, “assuming that the FTC was going to approve them substantively,” HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus previously explained.

There remains a ruling pending in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals concerning similar constitutional questions to the Fifth Circuit. It is currently unclear when that ruling will land.

But the current language in the omnibus spending bill would essentially render the current cases before the Fifth and Sixth Circuits legally moot in a practical sense, and would make the possibility of the Supreme Court taking them up altogether highly unlikely.

Even then, don't expect the legal fireworks to end, with a case in the U.S. District Court of Texas-Northern District, Amarillo Division-a potentially nasty looking legal blackthorn for the law.

Constitutional law expert Lucinda Finley recently told the TDN that the case raises several additional constitutional arguments that the Fifth and Sixth Circuits did not rule on, including HISA's investigative, subpoena and punishment power as a private body, and the way in which individuals on the HISA board are appointed.

“It argues that the whole structure is a delegation of not only too much executive authority, but can amount to a delegation of legislative and judicial authority as well,” Finley explained.

If the judge in the case agrees that HISA indeed delegates too much power to a private entity, the plaintiffs in the case are seeking an injunction to suspend enforcement of the law.

Would such an injunction apply nationwide or just in Texas?

“You've actually asked what is one of the most raging controversies in U.S. law,” Finley replied, leaving the answer open-ended.

The state of West Virginia is a plaintiff in two lawsuits against HISA that allege unconstitutionality. During a Tuesday morning meeting, the West Virginia Racing Commission (WVRC) discussed the ramifications of the pro-HISA language being added to the federal omnibus spending bill.

“This amendment appears to try to flip the rulemaking authority back to the FTC in a way that HISA can make suggested rules to the FTC, [which would] have the ultimate authority as to whether or not to approve them,” said WVRC commissioner J.B. Akers, who is an attorney.

“On its face, [this] could potentially resolve the constitutional issues, some or all, that were present in the Fifth Circuit case,” Akers said. “What's clear here is that someone has influenced the staffers or politicians who were responsible for writing this 4,000-plus page legislation to put a couple of paragraphs [in the bill] where they're now attempting to 'fix' the Fifth Circuit constitutional analysis so that the FTC has its mandated authority back. Whether or not that would satisfy those constitutional concerns,” Akers added, is unclear.

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