Wolf’s Proposal To Fund PA University Scholarships With Horse Fund Money ‘Not Gonna Fly,’ Says Bill Sponsor

Written By Kevin Shelly on April 13, 2021 - Last Updated on April 14, 2021

Pittsburgh area PA state Sen. Wayne Fontana admitted during an exclusive interview Tuesday with PlayPennsyvania that Gov. Tom Wolf‘s proposal to fund $200 million in state university scholarships from a trust fund for the state’s horse racing industry is “not gonna fly as written.”

The Democrat from Allegheny County said not a single Republican would support such a bill.

That means the plan promoted by Wolf for two years has little to no chance of passage.

As of this month, Republicans rule the Senate with 27 members to just 20 Democrats. There is one Independent and two vacancies.

Proposal tapping horse fund will fail with no Republican support

The crucial thing about Fontana’s frank “not gonna fly” comment is the veteran politician has agreed to sponsor the legislation creating Wolf’s proposed Nellie Bly Scholarship plan in the state Senate. And central to Wolf’s plan is taking money from the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Trust Fund and diverting it to the proposed scholarship program.

The horse funds come from a funding stream of about 10% of the state’s land-based casino slot machine revenue. Wolf signed legislation making the money an encumbered trust fund just a few years ago, something he has never addressed.

About the funding “I wanted another source,” to pay for the scholarships, said Fontana.

Kevin Hensil, a Wolf administration spokesman sidestepped addressing Fontana’s “not gonna fly” comment about the proposal having no prospect for approval without Republican support.

He instead rehashed the governor’s now two-year-old talking points about favoring investment in PA university students over “a private industry.” Hensil also said the Bly proposal would reduce student debt and help rebuild and retain the state’s talent pool.

A professional horse handicapper earlier this week said the governor’s proposal has losing odds.

A draft of the proposed legislation remains incomplete

The proposed legislation, still being worked on by the Wolf administration and Fontana’s staff is not yet written, according to Fontana.

Wolf first floated the proposal two years ago and then again for the second legislative year in a row back in February of this year after his proposal faltered the first time.

Fontana has suggested other funding sources

Fontana said he had initially discussed creating a state university scholarship fund during caucus discussions with Wolf more than a year ago. But Fontana’s plan back then was to pay for the program via state education money and the general fund.

More recently, he said he believed federal dollars flowing to the state to assist schools recovering from enrollment drops following the COVID-19 pandemic could be the source.

Tapping the horsemen’s funds is an idea from the Wolf administration, said the senator.

“Pushback” for tapping the horse fund

But Fontana, who reps a largely blue-collar district with “zero horse farms,” admitted tapping funding from the PA horse industry means the proposed legislation will never pass.

“There would be a lot of pushback,” said Fontana.

Fontana is a former Teamster and a boilermaker’s union member with a decade of experience in the Senate. He said he understands counting potential votes before submitting legislative proposals.

The senator said the proposed legislation remains only in draft form for now, and elements could change.

“There are a lot of variables,” he said. Those include discussions with the administration, input from possible co-sponsors, and the political reality of zero Republican support.

He added he hopes to have a draft by the end of this week.

Pete Peterson of the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition was not immediately available for comment. The coalition opposes the proposal.

Peterson has previously said even if a bill tapping the trust fund passes, a lawsuit would result. And that could take years to resolve.

Lead image via Dreamstime.

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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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