By Bill Finley
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf unveiled a budget plan on Wednesday that called for moving $199 million from the state's Race Horse Development Trust Fund into a program to help Pennsylvania students pay for colleges. Should Wolf succeed, purses at the Pennsylvania tracks would have to undergo dramatic cuts and to a degree that would decimate the state's racing and breeding industries.
“This proposal would result in the end of horse racing, which supports 20,000 jobs, delivers an annual $1.6-billion economic impact, and preserves hundreds of thousands of acres of open space,” said Pete Peterson, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition.
The development fund receives its money from a share of slot machine revenue at state casinos. The total fund adds up to about $230 million a year that goes to purses and breeding funds.
Wolf unveiled a similar proposal last year, but it never gained needed support. It may have stalled because the focus in the state government turned almost exclusively to the coronavirus. It's also likely that it stalled because a number of political leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate, particularly those in the Republican Party who represent rural areas, made it clear they were not on board.
“Last year, this was proposed and there was, basically, no traction at all,” said Brian Sanfratello, the executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association. “It was not only the Republicans. There was a lot of bipartisan agreement not to do this. We feel confident that the Race Horse Development Trust Fund language will hold up again. We're going to do everything we can to spread the word in the legislature.”
Wolf is looking to develop a scholarship program, which he has dubbed the Nellie Bly Scholarship Program, that would allow Pennsylvania residents to attend state colleges at a reduced price. Annual scholarships would cover as many as 20,000 students with as much as $5,700 going toward their tuition.
“Let's bet on our kids instead of bankrolling racehorse owners,” Wolf said when announcing his budget proposal in 2020.
“While the racing industry is important to Pennsylvania, it is time for the industry to support itself and continue to build upon the unprecedented generous economic investment made by the commonwealth to this single industry,” Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for Wolf, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The industry survived long before the subsidy began and it has had 16 years and $3 billion to develop what, by now, should be a self-sustaining industry.”
Sanfratello said the focus should be on the number of jobs that would be lost if Wolf succeeds in emptying the fund.
“We understand that education is important, but you don't fund education by putting 20,000 of their parents out of work,” he said. “Why Governor Wolf thinks this is a good idea is beyond me.”
While confident that the money will not leave the fund, Sanfratello pointed out that Wolf's proposal will affect the state's breeders this year. It may be difficult to convince people to breed in Pennsylvania when a possibility exists that the industry might soon have to deal with what would be a devastating blow.
“The breeding farms will be the ones hurt the most by this.” he said. “Whether this goes through or not, and we don't think that it will, the people who are getting ready to breed want to make sure that the money will be there when it's time to run. I am very, very confident that we are up for the task and will beat this. But it's a shame that the breeders have to go through this again.”
The Pennsylvania Equine Coalition and others will also be making the argument that taking the money away from racing would be illegal. In 2017, the General Assembly voted to put the development fund money into a trust. Wolf signed the measure into law. Placing the money into a trust appeared to guarantee that the money did not belong to the state and could not be used for anything other than programs that supported racing and breeding in the state.