Updated on 04/08/2017 12:42PM

Budget deal would give NYRA control of its own board

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The New York Racing Association will once again be able to appoint the majority of its board members under provisions of a budget deal reached between the New York legislative and executive branches on Friday night, according to a copy of the legislation and New York racing officials.

The NYRA provisions, if officially approved by both houses of the legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would establish a board of 17 voting members. NYRA would have the power to appoint eight of the members, with a ninth seat reserved for the association’s chief executive. New York’s governor and the state’s Senate and Assembly leaders would each receive two appointments, while one seat each would be reserved for the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and the New York Thoroughbred Breeders.

If approved later this year, the proposal would end a five-year period in which Cuomo and the legislature controlled a majority of the board’s appointments. In 2012, Cuomo engineered a state takeover of the board, citing concerns about the performance of its management. Most of the new members of the 15-seat board, however, were members of the earlier 25-seat board.

In a statement Saturday, NYRA chief executive Chris Kay, who was hired just after the Cuomo takeover, thanked Cuomo and the legislature for agreeing to the proposal.

“As a private entity, we look forward to continue to grow interest in our racing, expand our fan base, and promote New York’s important tourism and agriculture sectors,” the statement said.

Richard Violette, the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, expressed relief and support for the new proposal on Saturday morning, specifically citing the voting seats reserved for horsemen and breeders. Cuomo’s board had provided for a seat for both organizations, but they were nonvoting seats.

“We are now officially at the table, where we should be, and we’re grateful that the legislature and governor’s office agreed to see it that way,” Violette said.

The new proposal also weakens a plan by Cuomo to strengthen the powers of a state oversight board over NYRA. Cuomo had proposed that the oversight board be able to escrow the subsidies flowing to NYRA from a casino at Aqueduct racetrack in Queens if the board determined that NYRA’s two-year financial performance “deviated materially from the franchised corporation’s financial plan.” The proposal leaves that power in place, but it now requires a unanimous vote from the oversight board, rather than a majority vote.

Violette also expressed support for language added to the proposal that would require NYRA to reach an agreement with horsemen over race dates at Aqueduct, which operates throughout the winter. Aqueduct has frequently been targeted for reductions in race dates, and its future has appeared to be in flux, at least to supporters of development of the site. Horsemen consider Aqueduct to be critical to maintaining year-round operations in New York.

Cuomo’s initial takeover of the NYRA board in 2012 was set to expire after three years. However, Cuomo pushed through two separate one-year extensions in 2015 and 2016. At the time of the takeover, Cuomo was in discussions with casino companies and real-estate developers about an expansion of gambling in the state, and NYRA’s two downstate properties, Aqueduct in Queens and Belmont Park on Long Island, were considered prime locations for casino sites and other development. The state holds the deeds to NYRA’s three properties.

New York racing supporters began chafing at the state government’s influence over the board during the past two years. The supporters contended that the board was handcuffed when conducting long-term planning for the association’s three tracks because of Cuomo’s ability to steer the board toward plans favored by the government and special-interest groups.

Separately, the budget contains provisions that include changes to workers’ compensation for backstretch workers. Violette said the provisions would reduce the cost of workers’ compensation for trainers and potentially allow the policies to expand to a greater number of backstretch workers.

– additional reporting by David Grening

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