Ever so gently, Beacon Hill lawmakers are starting to raise some overdue questions about one of the state’s sacred cows — er, make that, sacred horses.
Back in 2011, the state established a fund to bail out the sagging horse-racing industry, a group that seems to have more connections than customers. Even with that boost, the thoroughbred industry’s woes have continued; the state’s last thoroughbred track, Suffolk Downs, in East Boston, is slated to close this year or in 2018. The fund has swollen to $15 million, and state gambling commissioners have been struggling to find ways to spend the cash responsibly. The balance grows every month, fattened by a portion of the taxes collected at the slots parlor in Plainville.
Now, breaking from their past reluctance to butt heads with the horsemen and their Beacon Hill allies, lawmakers have proposed redirecting the money from horses to more publicly minded causes, like aiding human trafficking victims, bolstering state parks, or funding municipalities.
It’s a definite sign of progress that legislators like Karen Spilka, Mark Montigny, and Bradley Jones have broached changes to the horse-racing fund. The money in the fund isn’t huge, in the context of the state’s $39 billion budget, but unwinding the special-interest giveaway embodied in the 2011 legislation would represent a victory in its own right.
Of the proposals to redirect the horse-racing money, any of them would represent an improvement. Jones’s proposal — to use some of the money for the Community Preservation Act, the state program that helps municipalities pay for affordable housing, open space, and historic preservation — promises to spread the benefits around the most.
Horsemen, though, aren’t letting their sinecure go without a fight. They have proposed using the fund to build a huge horse center somewhere in central Massachusetts — effectively doubling down on the state’s investment in horse racing. The facility would provide a new venue for racing, as well as a publicly subsidized spot for dressage and eventing.
There’s certainly a place for government support for businesses. The state supports life-science companies and aids businesses through state economic development agencies. But most of those grants are awarded competitively and support some broader public good. As a general matter, state aid should be aimed at helping build businesses that can eventually stand on their own, rather than keeping dying ones on artificial life support indefinitely. When Massachusetts lured General Electric to Boston, for instance, it didn’t promise to cover its losses in perpetuity.
With allies like House Speaker Robert DeLeo, though, horse racing in Massachusetts has enjoyed a special deal from the state. The stirrings on Beacon Hill are a welcome sign that the Legislature might be ready to rethink the state’s priorities.
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