BY PAT LITOWITZ
Local legislators are working to thwart a state representative's effort to redirect a slots license from the harness racing industry.
On Tuesday, the state House approved several amendments to the state's slots legislation. Among them were changes initiated by Rep. Mike Veon, a Democrat who represents Beaver County.
"We're trying to have it taken out," state Rep. Chris Sainato said. "We have to stay with the law that is in place."
One provision shortens the time a slots license promised to the harness industry can be transferred to a stand-alone facility. Currently, the license can be converted in July 2009. Veon's amendment moves the date up to July 2008.
In another proposal, the state will not be permitted to consider any party for a slots license if they are involved in ongoing litigation. Specifically, the amendment targets lawsuits involving the state Gaming Control Board, the state Harness Racing Commission or the state Horse Racing Commission.
The developers of Bedford Downs and Valley View Downs could be adversely affected by the changes if the state Senate goes along.
Both groups, which are vying for the state's last harness license, are involved in a court fight with the state harness commission. The state Supreme Court has yet to render a ruling.
"I don't think the change in the law is going to be successful," said Carmen Shick, who wants to build Bedford Downs in Mahoning Township.
"We do not believe that this attempt to circumvent the harness industry and the agricultural industry will be successful."
Joining Sainato in challenging Veon's efforts are state Sens. Gerald LaValle and Robert Robbins.
"We're fairly confident we can remove that legislation," said Anthony Rigano, Lavalle's chief of staff.
"We understand how important this is to Lawrence County (and Beaver County). We want a level playing field for both applicants."
With the state Legislature heading into recess, timing will play a role in the amendments' success or failure.
If the Senate does not approve of all the changes, the legislation will move to a conference committee made up of House and Senate members. The legislative session ends Nov. 30.
Rigano said LaValle has the support of Senate Republicans and Democrats to stop Veon's efforts.
"It's nice to have the Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans on the same page on this issue."
Losing the slots license would strip the state harness industry of 25 percent of revenue the slots would generate. Three harness racing sites are operating in the state. The fourth harness license had been promised to western Pennsylvania.
"The loss of the fourth harness track would be a mortal blow to our progress in promoting Pennsylvania harness racing," said Paul Spears, executive director of the Standardbred Breeders Association of Pennsylvania.
"This proposed amendment is not in the best interest of Pennsylvania agriculture. Pennsylvania horsemen need that revenue from the remaining Category 1 racing license to ensure their survival."
Shick estimates that area farmers could earn $3 million annually if Bedford Downs becomes reality. That money would come from the feed and bedding that they would sell to horse breeders using the Bedford site.
"We believe we will in fact ... receive a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court," he said. "We will then expedite our application to the gaming commission, which we believe will be successful.
"We will deliver on Bedford Downs and the promised economic benefits to this community."