Champions of Maryland's thoroughbred horse-racing industry are collecting support at the legislature for their multimillion-dollar tax relief bill the easy way. They're giving in, or as legislators prefer to say, "working it out."
The competing harness track at Rosecroft Raceway in southern Prince George's County wants language added to the bill to bar thoroughbreds from racing at night, when Rosecroft's races are conducted. No problem, said thoroughbred industry spokesman Frank DeFrancis, owner of the Laurel track. For a Harford County state senator concerned about horse-breeder constituents' two-hour drive to the training stables at Bowie, an amendment to give such breeders preferred access to the stables at Baltimore's Pimlico track is on the way.
And for a state senator from a newly powerful committee, seeking to make sure the money formerly paid in taxes actually goes to make capital improvements at the aging Maryland tracks, language to force some accountability is being attached.
"I think the racing industry does well to eliminate as many divisions as you can," said DeFrancis, the state's former economic development secretary. It is a new attitude for thoroughbred industry officials, who have been known for their pugnacious squabbles within the industry. That has hampered their dealings with the legislature in the past.
DeFrancis said of the industry's newly found compliance, "It comes to the point where you have to say, 'We have no more time; we cannot fiddle and faddle around. We must pass this bill now.' "
DeFrancis spoke today before a House committee in support of the $12 million tax relief measure drafted by Gov. Harry Hughes at the request of horse-racing industry leaders. The bill would cut the state's share of the handle, or average daily betting pool, from 4.09 percent to 0.5 percent, reduce the tracks' daily license fee from $1,000 to $25, and reduce the amount of revenue distributed to local governments from racing. The money is supposed to be used to improve track facilities and purses, the money the first four finishers collect in a race.
"We're not looking for a bail-out," DeFrancis said. "Don't give us a bail-out. Don't give us a handout. I'm not asking for tax-free bonds. All I'm asking you to do is level the playing field so the Maryland industry can compete."
Despite the cloud of political scandal that has followed Maryland's racing industry for years, the bill is attracting widespread support throughout the legislature this year, in part because of DeFrancis' influence, in part because of the threat of competition from a modern track scheduled to open in April in nearby New Jersey, and in part because of the racing industry's newly forged spirit of cooperation.
However, the legislative leaders' enthusiasm for the bill has made it receptive for possible decoration with items from the legislature's wish list. In addition to the accountability language and the key ban on night racing -- achieved after personal negotiations between DeFrancis and the politically well-connected Prince George's lawyer, Peter O'Malley, who represents Rosecroft -- state Sen. Leo Green (D-Prince George's) wants the racing industry's support for a bill that would distribute some revenues from the wine tax to municipalities who are losing their share of racing money.
"I'm trying to get DeFrancis and the counties to get behind the bill. He said he'd talk to the governor," said Green. "It's only $2 million, but it's the principle of the thing. It makes sense. Wine is a growing libation."