12/11/2015 2:54PM

Pennsylvania bill would fund merged commissions

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The Pennsylvania State Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday that overhauls the state’s racing statute and sets up a new funding mechanism for the state’s racing regulatory agencies by sending more of the sport’s casino subsidies to a merged racing commission.

The Senate voted 48-2 to pass the bill, which was drafted under a threat from Gov. Tom Wolf of a shutdown of the commissions unless the legislature addressed persistent shortfalls in the budgets for the state’s Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing commissions. The state’s House is expected to consider the legislation next week, but ongoing conflict over the state’s overall budget has raised concerns that the racing bill may become embroiled in a larger debate over Pennsylvania’s finances which has split the state’s Republican Party.

The bill will merge the Pennsylvania Racing Commission and Pennsylvania State Harness Racing Commission and provide additional funding to the combined agency through the Race Horse Development Fund. The fund currently provides approximately $250 million annually in subsidies for purses and breeders’ awards at Pennsylvania racetracks through an allocation of revenues from casinos.

The legislation will also remove restrictions prohibiting any person with a financial interest in racing or racehorses from serving on the commission.

Todd Mostoller, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said that the removal of the restrictions will likely allow the commission to better respond to the needs of the racing industry.

“For the first time we will have people who are knowledgeable about horse racing on the commission,” Mostoller said. “That is a big deal.”

The state’s agriculture department, which oversees the racing commissions, has said that the budget for horse racing regulation was facing a $10 million shortfall for this fiscal year, a deficit it said would continue for the indefinite future if a funding fix was not implemented. The primary source of funding for the commission currently comes from revenues raised on a tax on in-state bets on live races, a category of wagering that has declined precipitously over the past decade.

The bill passed by the Senate would provide $25 million in funding a year for the merged agency this year. According to the racing commission’s 2014 annual report, the state’s three Thoroughbred tracks paid out $107 million in purses that year and its three Standardbred tracks paid out $102 million in purses, for a total of $209 million. During the same year, a total of $765 million was bet on the races from the six tracks.