Gov. Tom Wolf’s year-old proposal calling for the transfer of $204 million from a fund set aside for the horse racing industry into a college scholarship program is once again facing resistance from Pennsylvania lawmakers.
Wolf in his February 2020 budget address called on lawmakers to consider shifting funds from an account known as the horse race trust fund, which initially was established to expand the state’s gaming industry.
The proposal from the Democrat governor did not advance a year ago, but has resurfaced this spring as lawmakers dig into his 2021-22 spending plan.
Based on terms Wolf laid out early last year, the reallocated funds would assist low- and moderate-income students attending one of the 14 universities under the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
The funding shift was most recently discussed April 8, as several members of the Senate Appropriations Committee pressed Russell Redding, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, on the economic impact from such a funding shift.
State Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said he had asked Redding a year ago how the horse racing business model would be affected if the funds were reallocated and did not receive a concrete answer at the time.
Pittman asked the same question again this month as lawmakers are going line item-by-line item through Wolf’s budget.
“If you’re going to make such a dramatic policy change – and I think we all realize there is economic benefit to horse racing and the horse race development trust fund – have there been discussions of what the direct impact will be to that industry?” Pittman said.
While Redding acknowledged there have been conversations about the issue, none have focused specifically on horse racing’s business model, going forward.
“There were discussions about the continued need to invest in the youth and the workforce,” Redding said.
When Redding offered up his confirmation to the question, Pittman said he was disappointed.
“When we bring issues up in a given year, and we express what I believe is a weakness in the governor’s proposal, I think it would always be helpful if, perhaps, that was taken to heart and those weaknesses would be addressed in the following year,” Pittman said.
Of the omission from answering the question, Pittman said, “This reminds me a little bit of the definition of insanity. I don’t know how you can expect us to eliminate and reduce a trust fund that was established for a given purpose without a full appreciation and understanding of what the impact will be on the business model.”
State Sen. Patrick Browne, R-Lehigh, also gave Redding a strong directive and said Wolf’s proposal would not be considered within his oversight without an answer to the business model question.
“The purpose of these hearings, the efficacy of them – this is not a casual exercise,” Browne said. “We do them for a reason. If there’s requests for due diligence on any of these proposals, we expect that to be done.”
Browne added, “A proposal like this, and the significance – it will not be considered by this committee if, at a minimum, there is not a willingness to take seriously the request made by this committee to this department for very important information about what this proposal means.”
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