Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget, which includes taking more than $200 million from the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Fund (PRHDF), is meeting with tremendous opposition in Washington County.
One can bet the contention won’t end soon.
Opponents say if Wolf, a Democrat, is successful, the horse racing industry in Pennsylvania would be dealt a fatal blow and Washington County’s economy would take a devastating hit.
“That fund is not for us to take from,” said state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll Township. “This is trickery and the governor is being disingenuous. Every year we hear a threat. That is why protections were written into this.
“When he says we should strip $200 million from the horse fund to pay for it, this sounds great to some. These are not tax dollars. This is a fund that comes straight from the casinos. Fifteen community fairs throughout all of Pennsylvania rely on horse racing to bring in funds to keep their fairs going. It’s an agricultural issue as well. When you strip from one industry, you are going to absolutely kill off that industry.”
The PRHDF was established in 2004 to give more funding to horsemen’s organizations and purses in order to offset the possible drop in racing wagers because of the arrival of slots in the state. All casinos must pay the assessment with proceeds divided as follows:
- 80% for increasing purses
- 16% for breeding funds
- 4% to fund health and pension benefits for members of the horsemen’s organizations
Horsemen and others say the fund is restricted. Horsemen also point to the 20,000 jobs, direct and ancillary, created by racing in the state.
“It would be impossible to overcome,” said Kim Hankins, executive director of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association (MSOA). “We would be back to the stone age. We have 700 horses on the grounds that would be gone. We are pushing back.
“The fund was formed to help us to survive. If (Wolf) takes that money, it will be the end of breeding and racing in Pennsylvania.”
Commissioners Diana Irey Vaughan, chairwoman, and Larry Maggi, along with other Washington County officials warn that if Wolf’s proposal comes to fruition, the county will be wounded.
“It just doesn’t seem fair,” Irey Vaughan said. “There will be many jobs lost. The economy will take a hit.”
Maggi said the county would lose a lot of industry, farming and other things if racing at The Meadows ceased.
Said Jeff Kotula, president of Washington County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Promotion Agency: “Harness racing is a large tourism attraction and a substantial economic driver for our area, especially when you consider the impact of The Adios. However, we must also keep in mind that agriculture remains one of the county’s largest industries with equine breeding and care being an important segment of that industry. The governor’s proposal to redirect $204 million from the Race Horse Development Trust Fund will negatively impact not only our agricultural community but also the countless jobs that are supported by that industry.”
The scholarship program Wolf is championing is aimed at curbing rising student debt. It’s geared toward lower- and middle-class students who graduate from one of the state’s 14 state-owned universities.
California University could benefit from the plan while Washington & Jefferson College, a private institution, could be stung by it. Both are in interesting positions being located in Washington County.
Christine Kindl, California’s vice president of communications and marketing, in an email referred questions to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).
“The strength of Pennsylvania’s economy and the vibrancy of its communities depend so much on students who graduate with career-oriented, affordable degrees,” said chancellor Daniel Greenstein of the PASSHE. “This program represents Gov. Tom Wolf’s commitment to our students and to maintaining public higher education as the engine of social mobility and economic development that it’s meant to be.”
The Wolf administration estimates that at least 25,000 students of the state-system university would benefit. The funds would come with the idea that students would have to remain residents of Pennsylvania for a certain number of years after graduating.
The scholarship program is inspired by Nellie Bly, who Wolf called a “Pennsylvanian of modest means.” Bly dropped out of what is now known as the Indiana University of Pennsylvania after her father passed away and she couldn’t afford tuition. She never got a degree and moved out of state to start her career.
In 2016, because of decreased pari-mutuel wagering, the State Racing Commission, which regulates horse racing and does drug testing, was in dire straits. Wolf negotiated funding, and he signed House bill 941 that provided significant reforms to the racing industry.
The PRHDF provides purses for races at the following state tracks and off-track betting parlors: Parx Casino, Presque Isle Downs & Casino, Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono, The Meadows and Harrah’s Philadelphia Racetrack and Casino
About 10% of slot revenue goes to the PRHDF.
Wolf faces a Republican-controlled legislature. The deadline for Pennsylvania to pass its budget is July 1.