It’s that time again for state lawmakers to play kick the can.
The Legislature again is taking up the issue of simulcasting rights, which allow owners of race tracks to accept bets on off-premises races. Rather than establish a permanent system, legislators have periodically approved temporary extensions of the existing rights. A new sunset date arrives, and they do it all over again. Like a number of other issues that regularly resurface on Beacon Hill, this ritual has gone on for years.
The latest such deadline: Jan. 15. Without legislative action, the simulcasts will go dark at the three betting parlors in the state: the Plainridge harness track in Plainville, Suffolk Downs in East Boston, and Raynham Park. Of those, only Plainridge Park still offers live racing. But all three want to keep simulcasting going.
Sterling Suffolk Racecourse sold its East Boston site, but continues simulcasting there, with a staff of about 85 people. Yes, the Suffolk Downs track is being redeveloped, and live thoroughbred races ended for good there last year. Sterling Suffolk may move the betting operation to the old Wonderland site in Revere, and it continues to eye a possible thoroughbred revival at the other end of the state, in Great Barrington.
George Carney continues to run Raynham Park, the former greyhound racetrack. He was dealt a bad hand when voters passed a law in 2008 banning dog racing as of Jan. 1, 2010. For that reason, lawmakers have seemed eager to let him keep the bets at Raynham going.
Then there’s Plainridge, site of a slots parlor as well as the harness track. It’s the off-season for live races right now at the Penn National-managed facility. But they’ll be back soon. Those contests, and the related simulcasting, support at least 100 jobs at the track — and many more off site.
Another extension of simulcasting is widely expected next week. No one wants to jeopardize the jobs that remain at the tracks, even though racing’s heyday has long since passed. Toward that end, the House on Thursday approved a bill that would extend simulcasting until Dec. 1. It’s possible that date may change during last-minute deliberations at the State House. There goes that can.
A more substantive piece of legislation, one that will modernize the state’s antiquated simulcasting laws, is still a ways off. Representative Tackey Chan and Senator Paul Feeney, co-chairmen of the consumer protection committee, know that kicking the can down the road again is not ideal. They are working together to craft a broader bill, one that would hopefully end this seemingly annual dance.
Easier said than done. Chan and Feeney are weighing a range of competing interests. The questions line up, like horses at the starting gate. Should off-track betting be allowed? If so, where? Should the laws be rewritten to encourage a new horse track to be built, possibly in Rowley or Wareham? What happens to the money accumulating in a state fund to help the thoroughbred industry — now some $15 million — if those races don’t return? And how does sports betting, still an undecided issue on Beacon Hill, fit into all of this?
Chan and Feeney both sound like they’re eager to put these questions to rest, as best as they can. Feeney said it’s hard to encourage new private-sector investments in the racing industry, if simulcasting rights depend so heavily on the whims of the Legislature. More stability is needed.
Feeney also said he prefers an earlier deadline than Dec. 1. That’s because of an important quirk in the legislative calendar: By that point, lawmakers would be meeting only in informal sessions, when one representative or senator can block a bill. Maybe the deadline gets reset for July 31, the end of formal sessions for the year?
That’s also the practical deadline for the comprehensive bill, to get it done this year. Feeney said he hopes to put in more work on it over this weekend. Although the Jan. 15 deadline provides a nice impetus, it’s essentially impossible to get the bigger bill passed in only a few days. And so it goes: another simulcast extension. Another good can-kicking. But if Chan and Feeney have their way this year, it might be the last one.