Wolf’s Planned Raid on PA Horse Racing Fund Appears Dead This Budget Year

Posted on September 29, 2020 - Last Updated on October 25, 2020

Whoa, Nellie! The Pennsylvania governor appears to have been unhorsed.

Gov. Tom Wolf‘s plan to fund his proposed Nellie Bly Scholarships for 25,000 students attending state universities through a $204 million grab from the Race Horse Development Fund is an apparent scratch from this year’s budget plans.

Nellie Bly proposal stuck in the gate

And maybe even from future state budget plans, too, say horse racing advocates Pete Peterson, of the PA Equine Coalition, and Todd Mostoller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

Even Rep. Carolyn Comitta, a Democrat who graduated from one of the eligible schools, West Chester, and was one of the few legislators to have voiced support for the plan, said Monday there is no legislative support for taking money from the horse racing industry to pay for the scholarship program.

Comitta was once the mayor of West Chester, where the university is located. She is running for the state Senate. Even she did not put her name on any legislation aimed at making the plan a reality.

Still, Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which oversees racing and its budget, kept the barn door slightly open, saying, “The administration’s conversations with the legislature regarding the budget process are ongoing.”

The PA State Horse Racing Commission‘s budget is the primary item on the agency’s meeting agenda for Tuesday.

Budget primary agenda item for racing commission, Bly unmentioned

The public portion of the meeting, which will be conducted via phone due to ongoing virus restrictions on in-person public meetings, begins at 1 p.m. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Cheryl Cook is leading the meeting. The Bly proposal goes unmentioned on the agenda.

Wolf, whose term ends in 2023, announced the scholarship proposal in early February during his annual budget address fanfare and ended with the punchline:

“Let’s bet on our kids instead of bankrolling race horse owners and ensure the viability of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.”

Bly scholarship proposal details

Under Wolf’s proposal, students would have needed 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.

Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, a Pennsylvanian. She dropped out of Indiana University of Pennsylvania after her father died and she could not afford tuition. Despite that, she became a world-famous journalist, a pioneering presence in the predominately male publishing world.

Wolf’s concern with making education more affordable stems from the reality that student loan debt for Pennsylvania residents is $68 billion, the second highest in the nation, averaging over $37,000 per student.

14 state universities covered under Bly proposal

The two-term Democrat then went on a barnstorming tour of some of the 14 universities that belong to Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education where the scholarships were targeted.

Opposition from the horse industry and Republican legislators was swift.

Little public support before Bly fell off the radar

Key Republican officials — State Sen. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson, of Bucks County; State Sen. Tom Killion, representing Chester and Delaware counties; State Sen. Elder Vogel, representing Lawrence, Beaver and Butler counties; and State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, representing Beaver, Washington and Greene counties — opposed the plan’s funding scheme early on.

Wolf’s dog-and-pony show outreach screeched to an abrupt halt in mid-March. The COVID-19 pandemic meant an end to most in-person instruction and activities.

Then a key Democrat, Sen. Lindsey Williams, opposed the plan at the end of March, her opposition reported exclusively on PlayPennsylvania. Williams is a prominent state senator in a leadership role on the committee that most often oversees gaming legislation.

There’s been no public talk about the proposal from the administration since March.

And Monday, a spokesperson for Rep. Comitta confirmed to PlayPennsylvania that the proposal lacked legislative support.

PA Race Horse Fund history

The racing fund came about in 2004. Republicans from rural and agricultural areas of the state had championed the horse racing industry with a set-aside of about 10% of casino slot revenues to offset losses of money spent at PA racetracks.

In return, urban Democrats got casinos approved.

The money stream from casino slot revenue went into a trust fund beginning in 2017 via the gambling expansion bill. Ironically, Wolf signed the law making it a trust fund.

The renamed fund is the Race Horse Development Trust Fund. New stipulations shielding the money from being siphoned off for other state programs were added.

The language found in the bill making the money a trust specifies that the money is not the commonwealth’s. There is also a clawback provision. It requires repayment of the millions diverted from the RHDF since 2009. A lawsuit is likely if the trust is broken.

Racecourses still trying to get back on track

According to Peterson, “There is little to no support among the House and the Senate for transferring this critical funding at this time.”

The governor’s proposal remains just that, without a legislative sponsor, he added.

The racing industry’s six PA tracks are still struggling to get back on their feet following virus shutdowns, said Peterson. But he thinks there will be some positive revenue news at tomorrow’s commission meeting.

Mostoller was blunt in his assessment of the Bly proposal.

“There seems to be no support. It never had support. I feel very good about it.”

Lead image credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

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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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