Lawmakers lift bar to racing industry aid

Renovation concerns had delayed funding

February 25, 2000|By William F. Zorzi | William F. Zorzi,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly's budget chairmen approved yesterday the release of nearly $5 million in aid to horse owners and breeders, after a briefing by racing industry representatives on the status of improvements to Maryland's tracks.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, both Baltimore Democrats, had blocked the release of the money because of concerns over whether the track owners had made sufficient improvements in to the tracks, management and promotional activities.

After a joint briefing before two budget subcommittees, Hoffman and Rawlings agreed to the release of the $4.9 million, which was approved last year on condition that track owners make the improvements.

"We released the funds on the recommendation of the subcommittees," said Rawlings, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that was briefed by the industry yesterday, said she was "impressed" with what she has seen. "I think this makes it clear that they are serious about improving the tracks," Kopp said. "We had seen a paper plan but had no idea about what had been improved and how much progress had been made."

Representatives of Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway updated lawmakers on the improvements at the tracks, and Maryland horse owners and breeders stressed the importance of releasing the money to help the industry.

Though the chairmen's blocking of the money appeared to be aimed at the track owners -- particularly Joseph A. De Francis, who holds the controlling interest in Pimlico and Laurel Park -- the groups most directly affected by the action were horse owners and breeders.

Lobbyists for De Francis told the subcommittees that the track owners have spent $1.07 million on improvements at Pimlico and $3.09 million at Laurel. They told lawmakers that more than $9.4 million would be spent at the two tracks this year, considerably more than the $5.8 million called for in the tracks' five-year $60 million master plan.

"Clearly Mr. De Francis has put his money where his mouth is," Kopp said.

The money that was held up was the second installment of the $10 million approved by the legislature last year to boost purses and Maryland's breeders' funds in an effort to make state tracks more competitive with those in other states.

Release of the money was contingent on Gov. Parris N. Glendening's approval of the plans, which came last year.

The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association estimated that without the money, purses at Maryland tracks would have to be reduced by $35,000 a day.

The legislature is considering a measure requested by track owners that would use state tax and lottery money to help finance improvements at Pimlico, Laurel Park, Rosecroft Raceway and off-track betting parlors.

The bill would set up a complicated financing arrangement in which a quasi-public agency would sell millions of dollars in bonds to pay part of the cost of the improvements.

Much of the money to pay off the bonds would come from bettors, but some would be taken from a state account funded by the state's racing tax. Other state tax and lottery revenues would be used to replenish that account.

In addition, the horsemen and breeders are again asking the legislature this year to approve another $10 million in enhancements for purses and the breeders' funds.

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