By Dick Jerardi
State Senator Tommy Tomlinson has been in the Pennsylvania legislature for 30 years, first in the House of Representatives and now serving his seventh term in the Senate, representing Bucks County. He knows precisely how the government works and certainly understands Harrisburg.
When Gov. Wolf announced his budget a few weeks ago, he revealed a plan to raid the Race Horse Development Fund, almost exactly the same proposal he made the year before. It went nowhere then and Tomlinson is very confident it is going nowhere now
“We were here a year ago,’’ Tomlinson said when I interviewed him for our “Let’s Go Racing’’ television show. “He did do this last year. We told him he couldn’t do it last year. We didn’t let him do it last year. We changed the law in 2017. We made it impossible. This money is in a trust fund. It’s for the horsemen. It’s $204 million.’’
The governor has proposed to take $199 million from the fund to use for college scholarships in the state system, certainly a noble cause.
But those of us with long memories remember that when Act 71 became law in the summer of 2004, it was after a long process spearheaded by the racing industry that had been badly hurt by surrounding states with alternative gaming that was supplementing the purses at those race tracks.
The state legislature and then Gov. Rendell made a decision that because of the competition, slot machines, with a percentage of the winnings reserved for the horse racing industry, should be legalized in the commonwealth. It has been a big success for horse owners, trainers, breeders and everybody in the business. It spurred breeding in the state. It also has been a huge windfall for casino owners and the commonwealth as well as a very good thing for property owners who have seen their taxes reduced because of a rebate designated to help them.
The law has worked exactly as designed so why would anybody want to change it?
Tomlinson knows the history because he has lived it. Many others do not know the history.
“This money has impacted all over the state,’’ he said. “It’s preserving over 100,000 acres of open space. It keeps farms going. It keeps agriculture going. It’s not like somebody is just getting this money. You have to race for it, you have to earn it, you have to win it. You have to pay your grooms, you have to pay your trainers, you have to pay for feed. This money’s just not sitting there stagnant.’’
No, it is not. In fact, it is estimated that the horse racing industry creates an annual economic activity of $1.6 billion in Pennsylvania when you consider every aspect of it.
“There are 20,000 employees (in the state connected with horse racing),’’ he said. “It’s really money well spent…Because Parx has been here almost my whole life, I want to see this race track stay here. The horsemen live in my community, work in this area. This has a lot of economic impact on my community. So it was important for me to make sure that we preserve horse racing as we developed more gambling to compete with Atlantic City. This money is part of the original deal. They’re trying to break the original deal. We’re not going to let them do it.’’
Tomlinson has talked to his colleagues in Harrisburg. He has a good sense of what they are thinking.
“It was a nonstarter last year; it’s a nonstarter this year,’’ Tomlinson said. “I’m going to take it as a constructive statement that we need more help for the state system, we need more money for the state system. But you don’t take money from one pot that has nothing to do with that and put it in another pot where it’s not really going to fix the structural problem that they have.’’
Obviously, losing the fund would be a disaster for horse racing in the state. Owners and breeders who have invested so much for so long would see the value of their investments decrease dramatically. As Tomlinson said, that would not be fair nor would it make economic sense. And, like he made very clear in the interview, he sees no way it’s going to happen.