Another Run At The Race Horse Fund, But What Odds Does Governor Wolf Have This Time Around?

Written By Kevin Shelly on April 12, 2021 - Last Updated on May 25, 2023
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With Pennsylvania’s governor and the in-state horse racing industry supported by a special race fund, Yogi Berra’s classic observation works as a tidy summary: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

More than a year ago, Gov. Tom Wolf made a losing play to raid the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Trust Fund, which comes from a funding stream of about 10% of the state’s land-based casino slot machine revenue.

With a whimper, not a bang, Wolf’s proposal failed to find any legislative backers or bill sponsors, even among fellow Democrats, as the virus pandemic reshaped most of the last legislative year’s priorities.

In track terms, Wolf’s run at the horse money was off the board – a non-finisher, stuck in the gate, out of the money.

While some conditions have changed, a professional handicapper, for now, thinks the proposal has losing odds.

Wolf tries another run at the race fund

Wolf, whose term ends in 2023, is back at it again this legislative year with only minor tweaks.

Wolf’s plan aims to redirect funds to PA students attending Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities.

The schools are:

  • Bloomsburg
  • California
  • Cheyney
  • Clarion
  • East Stroudsburg
  • Edinboro
  • Indiana
  • Kutztown
  • Lock Haven
  • Mansfield
  • Millersville
  • Shippensburg
  • Slippery Rock
  • West Chester

All of the schools are struggling in the face of COVID-19. But three – Edinboro, Mansfield, and Cheyney universities – face existential crises from declines in student enrollment. The declines began before the virus but have increased. They have drops of between 46% and 61%, a frightening number for Cheyney, a historically Black university.

Mixed legislative track conditions for changing race fund

Overall, legislative priorities in PA remain similar to a year ago.

But conditions on the legislative track may be slightly different given there is a proposed bill drafted by Senate Democrat Wayne Fontana of Allegheny County now seeking co-sponsors.

However, entrenched Republican majorities in the Legislature are less likely now to approve any policy initiative from Wolf given the past year.

Competing views on addressing the pandemic ginned up Statehouse warfare. Plus there is the longstanding rift between the dominant rural Republicans and the urban – and increasingly now also suburban – Democrats.

Proposal’s chances of success largely unaddressed

The Philadelphia Inquirer in a sprawling 4,000-word story mostly about allegations of horse racing deaths, but with a mention of Wolf’s proposal to send $200 million from the racing fund to PA state university students and institutions. It was followed by an editorial criticizing the horse fund and calling for an end to racing.

The Inquirer pieces did not note that the money from casino slots is funneled into an encumbered trust fund. Or note the law protecting that fund was signed by Wolf.

The law’s language making the fund a trust specifies that the money is not the Commonwealth’s. The law has a clawback provision, requiring repayment of the millions diverted from the RHDF since 2009. A lawsuit is likely to result if the trust is broken. Even if such a lawsuit went in favor of Wolf, implementing changes could easily take several years. By then the governor would no longer be in office.

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star also took a run at the topic and did note the horse money is in a trust account. But what has gone unaddressed thus far are the proposal’s prospects.

PlayPennsylvania decided it was time to handicap the proposal’s chances with some morning line odds.

Handicapper doesn’t like odds for Wolf successfully diverting fund

Because this isn’t our first rodeo, we called a former professional handicapper who works in the PA horse industry. He asked not to be identified by name.

His take:

“When the bill was introduced last year to take the money, it was like a first-time starter trying to break his maiden. Now with a race under his belt, the experience from last year they hope will help the chances of the bill breaking his maiden.”

Last year, the odds were maybe as poor as 15-1, according to the horseman.

This time out?

“Once there are backers, then you could really take it seriously. I wouldn’t make it a favorite yet, but it will get more support, so maybe 6-1,” said the handicapper.

Even that’s overly optimistic, thinks Pete Peterson of the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition.

“You might as well enter a claiming horse in the Kentucky Derby. You’d get better odds,” said Peterson.

No pony shows by Wolf during COVID

Last year, Wolf worked the university crowd with in-person appearances at many of the 14 schools. With virus restrictions in place, those appearances ceased and there’s been little chatter from the administration on the topic of late.

More telling, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties have had a supportive online petition posted for months.

But the online petition has only 113 signatures, 87 short of its modest goal of 200 signatures, despite predictions that upwards of 25,000 students could benefit.

Lead image credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

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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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