Massachusetts has $15.5 million sitting in a little-known account, and is desperate for ways to spend it. So desperate, in fact, that some even finds its way to a racetrack in rural New York.
If that seems odd to every cash-strapped homeless shelter or elementary school in the Commonwealth — well, it should. It’s untenable, at a time when state Senate president Stanley Rosenberg warns the state is no longer “rolling in dough,” for the state’s horse racing fund to keep sitting on a growing pile of cash even as it struggles to use it.
The problem started in 2011 when the Legislature set up a special account, known as the Horse Race Development Fund, to support an industry that’s been plummeting in popularity. The tracks’ failure to attract a new generation of fans has threatened the livelihood of blacksmiths, veterinarians, breeders, jockeys, and track workers.
The racing fund was supposed to get the industry back on its feet. But even the state’s financial boost hasn’t been enough to overcome the reality of the near-empty stands at Suffolk Downs. The track in East Boston, the state’s only facility for thoroughbred racing, announced earlier this year that as part of a sale to a new owner, it will end live racing after this season or in 2018.
Still, the racing fund keeps growing — taking in around $1 million a month, according to gaming commission statistics. By law, 9 percent of the revenues from the slots parlor at Plainridge go straight into horse racing fund. When the MGM casino in Springfield and Wynn casino in Everett open, a small portion of their proceeds will go to support racing, too. The fund is not temporary assistance for an industry that’s hit a rough patch: With no sunset in the casino law, the horse racing industry is in line for a perpetual handout.
Zeppelin repairmen, one-hour photo labs, print newspapers, and other fading industries should be so lucky.
The state’s sole harness track, where live racing is set to begin for the season on Monday, receives some of the money, and the subsidies for that form of racing seem to have stopped the bleeding. But with the struggles at Suffolk Downs, finding ways to support thoroughbred racing — originally expected to receive three-quarters of the subsidies — has been more challenging. Ever since the Legislature quietly amended the fund’s rules in 2015, the commission has also been using some of the proceeds to bolster thoroughbred race purses at the Finger Lakes racetrack in upstate New York. Those races feature Massachusetts-bred horses, meaning the purses still support farms in the Commonwealth, but all the track jobs and other ostensible economic benefits from racing occur hundreds of miles away.
Stephen Crosby, the chairman of the gaming commission, said subsidizing the purses for Massachusetts-bred horses at Finger Lakes was in keeping with the fund’s purpose. “The Legislature has said they want to sustain standardbred and thoroughbred racing because they believe the overall benefits to the Commonwealth are worth it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you run the horses.”
Crosby said he supported legislation that would reform the horse racing industry and give it a better chance of success in Massachusetts, but that taking away the fund would be the “death knell” for racing in the Commonwealth. “There are very few examples of successful stand-alone racetracks,” he said. “They generally have to be subsidized by something — and not just the purses, but the whole operation.”
But why should it be the state government providing the funds? When the casino law was passed, allies of the racing industry tried to spin the fund as something other than a special-interest giveaway by claiming it served the broader public interest in preserving open space on horse farms.
If preservation is really Beacon Hill’s concern, though, it would make more sense to follow the suggestion of State Representative Bradley H. Jones, a Republican from North Reading, who last year proposed redirecting some of the horse racing money into community preservation funding for municipalities. Community Preservation Act money can be used for open space, affordable housing, and historic preservation; local dollars are supposed to be matched with state money, but the state’s contribution has been declining in recent years and will be stretched even thinner now that Boston voted to join the program.
“They’re not using all the [horse racing] money by any stretch of the imagination, and CPA has this need,” Jones said. He noted that the proposal would only reduce state race funding, not eliminate it, meaning the industry would continue to receive some state support.
Jones’s proposal would be a step in the right direction, but the state’s ultimate goal should be to wean horse racing off state support completely. The collapse of horse racing has inflicted undeniable pain on many workers in Massachusetts, and they deserve the Commonwealth’s full support making a transition to more viable jobs. But simply paying them to run horses in front of ever-shrinking crowds — at Suffolk Downs, in New York, or anywhere else — is not a long-term economic policy.