New Castle News

November 25, 2013

Racing bill calls for industry overhaul

Nancy Lowry
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Legislation introduced last week might save Pennsylvania’s horse racing industry, which could go broke early next year.

State Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., who represents Lawrence County, is one of four senators who introduced the measure.

If enacted, the legislation will abolish both the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission, which oversees thoroughbred racing, and the Pennsylvania State Harness Racing Commission, which regulates harness racing.

The two would merge into a Bureau of Horse Racing.

Horse racing — and all other forms of gambling — would be under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which now licenses and regulates casinos .

Both three-member commissions currently are under the Department of Agriculture.

Acting with Vogel, who is chairman of the Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee, were senators Dominic Pileggi, Joseph Scamati and Robert Tomlinson.

Lawrence County commissioner chairman Dan Vogler, who has cheered on the development of Lawrence Downs Casino and Racetrack since the idea’s inception about 10 years ago, this week raised concern over how the proposed changes might affect progress of the harness racetrack and casino planned for Mahoning Township.

This or any change to the gaming law “could provide legislators with the opportunity to introduce amendments that could be detrimental to our interests in the track and casino,” Vogler said.

The license for Lawrence Downs has been granted by the harness commission, he said.

“Could this (new legislature) somehow retroactively overturn the award already made? Could a legislator craft an amendment with potential to harm our project?” he asked.

Vogler said Vogel “must be vigilant and shoot down any amendment that would be harmful.”

He said the county commissioners will monitor the situation for developments.

“I hope we don’t see that happen,” he said. “We appreciate the support the harness commission has shown to our project.”

Vogler said he understands the need for some of the changes being proposed.

“But I would feel better if this (proposed legislation) had not happened until our project was under construction or up and running.”



CHANGES ARE NEEDED

Michael Rader, executive director of the Senate Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee, said Vogler’s concerns are understandable but unnecessary.

“Sen. Vogel is in favor of the Lawrence County track, which will be in his district,” Rader said. “He would do nothing to hurt it. The truth is, that project and all racetracks are in jeopardy if he does nothing.”

Rader said Pennsylvania’s racing industry is experiencing a fiscal crisis.

“It is running out of money and will be insolvent early next year,” he said.

Rader said much has changed since the state’s gaming law — the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act — took effect in 2004. For one thing, Pennsylvania opened casinos in 2006.

It is revenue generated by slot machine patrons that funds racetrack purses and breed development programs of the horse racing industry, he said.

Gaming revenue also funds health insurance and pension benefit programs for horsemen.



ATTENDANCE DECLINE

The rise of Internet and off-track betting — which are exempt from the parimutuel tax that has funded regulations and the commissions — has hurt revenues. Parimutuel wagering money not bet at the racetrack is money the racetrack doesn’t receive.

A decline in attendance at racetracks has resulted in less money available for regulation. The parimutuel handle, he said, is the only source of funding for regulation.

“There is not enough money in the pot — revenue recovered from parimutuel handle —to support the racing industry in the future,” he said.

Under the proposed legislation, the gaming board would license Internet horse racing wagering. Those proceeds also would go toward funding regulations.

Rader added that the law — the Race Horse Industry Reform Act — has not been updated since the 1981.

“It is our intention to generate funding for the best interests of racing,” he said.

Changes proposed would affect licensing, fees, fines and the parimutuel tax structure to adequately fund regulatory oversight and drug testing.

Rader said Pennsylvania has three existing thoroughbred racetracks and three operating harness racetracks.

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)