Gov. Tom Wolf should not have expected any support for his Nellie Bly Tuition Program from the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, nor did he receive any.
The commission, with members whose livelihoods have been connected to horse racing in the state, unanimously voted to oppose Wolf’s Nellie Bly proposal during a monthly meeting held by phone Tuesday.
It’s not that they are against Wolf’s intent to assist young adults attending Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities with their college costs, commissioners said, but just like last year, they can’t swallow his approach to take funds from the horse industry to do it.
In the 2021-22 budget proposal he presented on Feb. 3, Wolf called for taking $199 million in annual casino slots proceeds now directed to Pennsylvania’s Horse Racing Development Fund and transferring it instead to support education. The money currently supports horse racing purses at the state’s six tracks and helps subsidize horse breeding in the state, as part of the broad legislative agreement that launched Pennsylvania’s casino industry in 2004.
Wolf made the same proposal unsuccessfully last year, only the figure attached that time was $204 million.
It’s a case of deja vu all over again
“This is kind of like ‘Groundhog Day,’” commissioner Thomas Ellis said in putting forth a quickly adopted resolution to oppose Wolf’s plan. The commission went on record the same way a year ago.
“Robbing Peter to pay Paul will not solve the problem” of helping families cover college costs,” Ellis said. “This will actually have a negative impact on [jobs] and state revenue, the opposite of what the governor wants to do with the Nellie Bly school program. We appreciate the governor’s efforts to address student debt, but we truly feel this is the wrong way to go.”
Other commission members echoed Ellis’ comments, which all served as a reminder of the one-sided reaction that Wolf’s plan generated in 2020. The horse industry organized a vigorous grassroots lobbying campaign against it while touting the importance of racing to Pennsylvania’s agricultural economy and arguing that the impact on purse sizes would be catastrophic for the tracks’ future.
Republican legislative leaders, traditionally with close ties to rural interests and causes, had little incentive to support the Democratic governor’s proposal. Though Wolf went around the state pitching it while visiting state universities, the plan never received legislative debate or a vote. The new initiative’s chances also probably were not helped by the fact that COVID-19’s ramifications appeared to sideline all other state government considerations from March 2020 forward.
At this point, there is no indication things will be different this year. Wolf’s Secretary of Agriculture, Russell Redding, chairs the Horse Racing Commission but issued no statement during discussion of Ellis’ resolution Tuesday.
He authored an op-ed last year, however, that was published in publications around the state as an endorsement of the Nellie Bly program. Redding could be expected to back it again on Wolf’s behalf during a House Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday afternoon to review the Department of Agriculture’s budget.