By: Staff- NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
HARRISBURG, Pa. — A stronger, unified governance body to oversee Pennsylvania’s more than $1 billion equine racing industry began its work to strengthen horse and harness racing. The new State Horse Racing Commission now has two meetings under its belt.
Governor Tom Wolf paved the way for the new commission and other needed reforms to the industry earlier this year when he signed Act 7. The law represents the first significant industry reforms in three decades — a period over which time the nature and breadth of racing in Pennsylvania changed dramatically, bringing with it new challenges and new opportunities.
The new commission puts the oversight of Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing under one body, rather than the two separate commissions that existed previously for each breed.
“Racing today is incredibly different than it was decades ago,” said Governor Wolf. “We had to change with the times. The previous system left the commonwealth with a framework under which we lacked the resources to ensure the sport’s integrity. The system was broken, and we were facing a structural deficit in the state’s Racing Fund, which jeopardized our ability to oversee the industry and protect the wagering public.
“This new commission and the other reforms enacted, with the support of the General Assembly, puts us in a much better position to ensure the future of racing in Pennsylvania,” Governor Wolf added. “The new commission includes industry leaders who are committed to a thriving industry.”
In October 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture announced it no longer had the needed financial resources to maintain operations at the state’s two racing commissions — the Horse Racing Commission and the Harness Racing Commission — or to operate the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology Research Laboratory (PETRL) at West Chester University where samples from race horses are tested for performance-enhancing substances. As a result, the state faced the difficult prospect of suspending racing in Pennsylvania.
The structural deficit in the State Racing Fund was the result of a 71 percent decline in wagers on live horse racing in the state since 2001. Pari-mutuel taxes on those wagers fund the oversight of racing in the state. That persistent imbalance had been noted by the Wolf administration, the administrations of previous governors, as well as the state auditor general and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
In response to this challenge, the Wolf Administration convened a working group of state officials, members of the legislature and stakeholders from the equine industry and the state’s six licensed racetrack operators to develop a solution. The results of those negotiations are reflected in Act 7.
As part of the first meeting in June, commissioners discussed the financial status of the state Racing Fund, operations at PETRL, sources of funding through pari-mutuel taxes and the Race Horse Development Fund, as well as budgets for the commission and PETRL in fiscal years 2016-17 and 2017-16.
“Today represents the beginning of a new day for racing in Pennsylvania,” said Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding after the first meeting, “This is the result of hard work and compromise by a number of stakeholders. Each of the involved parties came to the table, engaged in meaningful discussions and provided leadership to get us to this point. I sincerely thank each of them for that.
“Act 7 and the Race Horse Development and Gaming Act make clear that horse and harness racing are important parts of our agricultural economy. Collectively, racing contributes an estimated $1.6 billion in economic activity for Pennsylvania, with many of those dollars going to support agricultural operations. The commonwealth has made two very intentional and clear statements — we value racing and what it does economically for this state. I look forward to the work the commission will do moving forward to grow this industry.”
The new commission will have a total of nine members. Per Act 7, five appointments are made by the governor — one veterinarian, one representative of a Thoroughbred horsemen’s organization, one representative of a Thoroughbred breeder organization, one representative of a Standardbred horsemen’s association, and one representative of a Standardbred breeder organization — and four members appointed by each of the four legislative caucuses.
As of now, there are six seated members:
Salvatore M. DeBunda, Philadelphia County
Russell B. Jones, Chester County
Dr. Corinne Sweeney, Chester County
Thomas J. Ellis, Montgomery County
C. Edward Rogers, Cumberland County
Michelle C. Ruddy, Lackawanna County
Secretary Redding serves as an ex-officio, non-voting, member and will chair the commission. Appointees will serve an initial two-year term and then terms will be staggered with the governor’s appointees serving three years and legislative appointees serving two-year terms.
Three other individuals were appointed to the commission, but after further consideration, removed their names from consideration. It will be up to the respective nominating bodies to put forth additional names for consideration to fill the three open seats.
While the state now has one unified commission under Act 7, there are two breed-specific bureaus: the Thoroughbred (Horse) and Standardbred (Harness) racing bureaus. This structure allows the commission to make decisions on breed-specific issues.
The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 24 in Harrisburg.
For more information about racing in Pennsylvania, visit www.agriculture.pa.gov and search “horse racing.”