Governor Wolf Touts PA Scholarship Plan, Less Talk On Backing With Horse Fund

Posted on February 27, 2020

Call it a dog-and-pony show: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is touring the state pitching for support for his proposed scholarship plan. But he is mostly not talking about details of how he proposes to pay for the ambitious project.

That plan involves taking $204 million from a trust fund earmarked for the state’s horse industry.

Scholarships meant to serve many needs

The scholarship plan should help lower- and middle-class students attend one of Pennsylvania’s 14 state universities. It is also intended to decrease student debt, and increase workforce development, while also ensuring a steady stream of students.

Students would need to enroll full-time in an undergraduate state school program and qualify for a federally subsidized student loan. They must commit to live in Pennsylvania after graduation for the same number of years they received the scholarship.

Student loan debt for Pennsylvania residents is $68 billion, second the highest in the nation, averaging over $37,000 per student.

Taking from horsemen to give to students

Paying for the ambitious proposal would come by diverting the lion’s share of the Race Horse Development Trust Fund, which by law is reserved for the horse industry in PA. The trust comes from a share of casino slot revenue based on a 2004 law, which led to the approval of casinos.

Wolf announced his plan on Feb. 4 during his budget address.

Breaking into an encumbered trust fund will require amending the 2017 provision of a gambling law Wolf himself signed.

Finding the needed bi-partisan approval – Republicans control both houses of the Legislature – for that move seems a stretch.

Not much talk of funding source during school visits

On Wednesday, Wolf went to Pennsbury High School in Bucks County’s Fairless Hills, a census tract in Falls Township. Fairless Hills was once known for its now-shuttered steel mill and pre-fabricated houses. The community has a median annual household income of $45,424.

Wolf made the presentation about 10 miles from Parx Casino and Racing in nearby Bensalem on the same day the Legislature began reviewing his budget proposal for the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the fund.

But a news account of Wolf’s visit makes no mention of how he intends to pay for the plan. Wolf appears to have spoken about the horse fund just once during his circuit of stops promoting his plan, at Lock Haven University, but didn’t go into detail about the trust.

On the governor’s write-up of the tour on his official website, the funding source is described as follows. “The program will be funded by repurposing revenues from the Horse Racing Development Fund annually.”

What the governor refers to as “repurposing,” is described much differently by other interested parties.

Key opposition has emerged

Already several key officials – State Sen. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson (R-Bucks), State Sen. Tom Killion (R-Chester and Delaware), State Sen. Elder Vogel  (R-Lawrence, Beaver, Butler), and State Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Beaver, Washington and Greene) – have opposed the plan’s funding scheme.

Bartolotta said on her website:

“A sustainable budget has no room for gimmicks, which is exactly what the Governor is attempting to do with his proposal to raid the Horse Race Development Trust Fund. This fund is financed by casinos, not tax dollars, and exists for the sole purpose of supporting the horse racing industry. Robbing this fund which benefits our local racing community not only threatens a significant job creator in the area, but it also stifles tourism dollars and opportunities with fifteen community fairs that have made horse racing a key attraction for decades.”

Vogel added on his website that the transfer of funds “could threaten the very existence” of the horse industry in Pennsylvania.

He also said the governor made additional proposals to tap the horse fund in his budget proposal:

  • Transfer $19.7 million more to support other line items in the Department of Agriculture budget.
  • Eliminating the transfer of $32.5 million from the fund to support the Sire Stakes Fund, the Breeders’ Fund, and the Pennsylvania Standardbred Breeders Fund.

Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen’s Association leader Sam Beegle testified Tuesday during the horse racing commission meeting that Wolf’s proposals would mean “devastation.”

Members of the horse racing commission voted and passed a resolution opposing the governor’s plan on Tuesday. The chairman of the commission, Russell Redding, also the state’s Secretary of Agriculture, abstained during the vote.

After the meeting, Redding told PlayPennsylvania neither Wolf nor the governor’s staff had discussed tapping the horse fund with him before the budget address. He added though that he was aware the governor wanted to make structural changes to support higher education.

Secretary of Agriculture thinks horse industry should be self-sustaining

In a recent op-ed for The Mercury, Redding insisted, “It’s time for the industry to rely on their racing skills instead of a state subsidy.”

He highlighted the many forms of governmental support the horse racing industry has received over the last decade-plus. Redding also explained that much of that support would remain intact, even with the diversion of monies to the scholarship fund.

Redding also emphasized that the main responsibility of promoting more interest in the sport lies with members of the industry.

“The gaming revenue in the Race Horse Development Fund is a supplement to the purses, so it continues to be on the horseman to increase interest and wagering on their product to increase their purses.”

He closed with the following:

“Now, just as the Commonwealth responded to the needs of horse racing, we need to respond to the needs of our future workforce.

“Is this the end of horse racing? It shouldn’t be.

“But if it is, we’ve made a very poor public policy decision to — for 16-years— invest in it so heavily. These years should have been the yeast to build a self-sustaining industry.”

Redding’s opinion piece makes no mention of the horse funds’ protection in a trust. The scholarship proposal will continue to play out in the coming months as the June 30 budget deadline approaches.

Lead image courtesy of The Office of Governor Tom Wolf (via Flickr.com).

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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