Governor to seek horse racing subsidies, oversight
Gov. Martin O'Malley wants state officials to review the financial documents of private horse tracks in exchange for giving track owners access to millions of dollars per year in subsidies if they need the money to operate.
Sen. David Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, praised the governor's intervention efforts but called the proposal "a Band-Aid on an arterial wound." The administration and lawmakers have wrestled for years with how to save horse racing -- and the jobs and land preservation that accompany the struggling industry.
In legislative briefings today and Wednesday, O'Malley's aides said the forthcoming proposal would look similar to the emergency deal the governor struck at the end of the year, when the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County and Pimlico in Baltimore, said it did not have enough money to pay for a full, 146-day racing calendar this year.
The state gave the Jockey Club, operated by MI Developments and Penn National Gaming, $3.6 million in money generated by the fledgling slot-machine gambling program. It is supposed to be used for track improvements. Instead, it'll be used just to keep the tracks open.
Joseph Bryce, O'Malley's top legislative aide, said the administration is crafting bills that would give track owners ongoing access to slots money for operations -- a proposal that would last "a couple of years."
Under current law, 2.5 percent of slots money goes into an account that tracks are to use for upgrades. It is split 80/20 between the Jockey Club and the two harness tracks, Rosecroft in Prince George's County and Ocean Downs on the Eastern Shore.
The O'Malley legislation will enable track owners to use that money for operations if they can show the state that they need it, as they did this year. Bryce said the legislation will charge the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation with reviewing the financial books of the owners.
The legislation also will contain provisions for monthly communication between the owners and DLLR Secretary Alex Sanchez and require auditing when necessary, Bryce said.
For harness racing, owners could not draw more than $1.2 million for operations per year. The Jockey Club could access about as much as it did this year. Bryce said the governor also wants the state to loan Rosecroft's new owners several million dollars right away to re-start live racing.
Some senators at yesterday's briefing questioned whether any amount of state aid can save horse racing. Others criticized the Jockey Club's long and pricey battle against the state's largest slots project, at Arundel Mills mall, at the same time it is taking state money.
"It's not a perfect confluence of events," Bryce said. "But they own the stadiums, and no one can race without them."