Gov. Harry Hughes, convinced that his proposed $6 million bailout of the troubled thoroughbred horse racing industry was doomed to defeat in the General Assembly, is now supporting a modified version of the plan -- this one twice as expensive.
The new plan, proposed in a House committee today, would create a state racing authority to buy the Bowie thoroughbred race track for $12 million, and run its 96-day racing season for the next two years.
After two years, the authority would have the power to lease those "racing days" to Maryland's two other thoroughbred tracks, Laurel and Pimlico, while running Bowie as a training center. The extended racing seasons would help the two tracks overcome their present financial troubles, thereby saving the $600 million-a-year industry, according to the plan.
The new plan would, in effect, accomplish indirectly what the original plan proposed to do -- consolidate thoroughbred horse racing at the Laurel and Pimlico tracks, Hughes' top aide, Ejner Johnson, told the House Ways and Means Committee today. While doubling the pricetag, it would remove certain politically explosive features of the original plan, Johnson said.
Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), the legislature's prime political strategist on the racing issue and one of the committee's most influential members, presented the new plan today in the form of 21 detailed amendments to Hughes's original bill. Johnson said he, Weisengoff and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Melvin A. Steinberg worked out the plan in a private meeting last week.
Despite its high-level support, the plan appeared still to face hurles, based on questions by committee members. Del. David Scull (D-Montgomery) suggested: "It sort of sounds like a Maryland version of the Chrysler bailout. The price seems to get bigger as the weeks go by."
Weisengoff and Steinberg also have major differences on how the authority and the legislation would be designed. Steinberg is expected to present his proposals in his committee later this week, and the Ways and Means Committee is expected to vote on the Weisengoff-Johnson plan on Monday. Johnson told the committee that Hughes backs the amendments, with minor revisions.
The original plan proposed to buy only Bowie's racing season, leaving the 476-acre grounds to the present owners. The price tag for the 96 days was to be $6 million, and Laurel and Pimlico were to divide Bowie's business equally -- 48 racing days each. It did not require them to lease the extra days.
Both plans would be financed out of a wagering tax rather than out of present state funds.
Opposition welled up against the original plan when it was learned that the state legally owns the racing days it was proposing to buy from Bowie. The new plan, by which the state would purchase all interest in the Bowie track would leave the state with tangible assets, and would perhaps be more politically popular, Johnson said.
In addition, the state racing authority would provide a vehicle for Maryland, like New York, eventually to take over racing altogether, Johnson said