Horse advocates decry Wolf’s plan to divert funds for student loans | News

WEST CHESTER—Gov. Tom Wolf visited West Chester University to celebrate his new educational initiative, the Nellie Bly Scholarship Program, on Thursday.

The governor’s new initiative is a need-based scholarship program for students within the state’s university system to help them afford the high costs of earning their college degrees.

“The Nellie Bly Scholarship Program fills the gap after other aid programs so thousands of students can afford college,” Wolf said. “With less college debt, graduates can buy a car and a home, start a family and save for retirement. The program also strengthens our public university system and creates a talented labor force that Pennsylvania needs to thrive.”

To pay for this scholarship program, Wolf has proposed pulling funds from Pennsylvania agriculture, specifically the restricted Horse Race Development Trust Fund, which was established in 2004 via the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act and implemented in 2006.

Since then, the industry has received $2 billion in funds from the trust, according to the governor’s office.

However, many in the audience decried the proposed financial source that the governor wishes to take from to fund the program.

“Instead of the governor destroying an industry and family farms to create a program that holds our young people hostage by forcing them to stay in Pennsylvania, why doesn’t the governor focus on creating a state that makes students want to stay?” questioned Heather Hunter, who cares for baby horses — foals — at her family’s working farm, known as Spinnaker Hill Farm and Upland Spring Farm, in London Grove Township. Her son, Tucker, is a student at West Chester University.

But the executive secretary of the Kennett Square-based Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, Brian Sanfratello, said that 90 percent of this money gets reinvested in Pennsylvania. 

“It is where the horse lives,” Sanfratello said.

Industry advocates with a stake in horse racing and horse breeding within the commonwealth decried the move citing it will end the state’s robust horse breeding and racing businesses and put more than 20,000 state residents out of work, ultimately eliminating an industry that creates $1.6 billion in revenues annually and jeopardize hundreds of thousands of acres of open space, according to the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition.

“Leave it to our state government to use the success of an industry or program as justification for raiding the funding that enables it to function,” said Pete Peterson, Pennsylvania Equine Coalition spokesperson.

“The horse breeding industry has been doing well because this fund supports breeder incentives and purses that are competitive with other states,” Peterson said. “The fund is the lifeblood of our industry and, without it, horse racing and breeding in Pennsylvania would cease to exist.

He continued, “Countless family farms that preserve more than 100,000 acres of open space in Pennsylvania would go bankrupt, which will imperil their vendors like hay and straw farmers, contractors, equipment suppliers, and countless other small businesses. 20,000 jobs that people rely on to support their families will be lost, but the impact will extend throughout the state’s agricultural sector and broader economy.”

Money put into the fund is revenue pulled from Pennsylvania slot machines at 14 locations spanning the commonwealth including seven horse track racing locations.

Specifically, the governor has proposed a $204 million cut from the horsing trust to fund his new education initiative.

The scholarship would apply after a student’s Pell Grant and other state grants to enroll in one of the 14 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) universities, according to the governor’s office. To be eligible, students must enroll full-time in a PASSHE undergraduate program and qualify for a federal subsidized student loan. Students must commit to live in Pennsylvania after graduation for the same number of years they received the scholarship. If a student leaves the state early, they must repay the money.

The funds are considered “repurposing revenues” from the annual Horse Racing Development Trust Fund, according to the governor’s office.

Peterson, speaking on behalf of the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, said it is important to understand that the governor is seeking to divert non-tax dollars from the Race Horse Development Trust Fund. In 2017, the legislature passed — and Governor Wolf signed into law — legislation (Act 47) that specifically states the money in the RHDTF  “are not funds of the Commonwealth” and that “the Commonwealth is not rightfully entitled” to the funds.

Pulling from this resource, in addition to the $204 million slated for allocation to the Nellie Bly Scholarship Program, the governor’s budget invests in higher education with $12.9 million to support the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, a state agency of the commonwealth that oversees 14 state-owned colleges, including West Chester, representing a total enrollment of 95,000 students.

“In July 2004, the General Assembly enacted the Race Horse Development and Gaming Act to address the financial struggles of the horse racing industry and to attempt to increase interest in the sport,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, deputy press secretary for the governor’s communications office in Harrisburg.

“Since then, Pennsylvania racing industry has received more than $2 billion dollars that goes primarily to horse owners,” Kensinger said. “It is time for the industry as a whole to support itself and continue to build upon the unprecedented generous economic investment made by the commonwealth to this single industry. It is not fiscally responsible to continue to subsidize an industry that has stabilized and grown.

To continue to support the racing industry and ensure the safety of equine athletes, Kensinger said the Racing Commission and Department of Agriculture will retain funds to support the regulation and oversight of the racing industry.

However, horse breeders like Heather Hunter said those funds are allocated to places like New Bolton Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The governor’s office confirmed on Thursday to the Daily Local News that by pulling money from the Horse Race Development Trust Fund, $30 million dollars presently being allocated to support Pennsylvania horse breeders will be completely eliminated from the next fiscal budget.

If the state legislature approves the governor’s budget proposal as is, it will impact the horse breeding and horse racing industry as early as July.

Senator Camera Bartolotta (R-46) shared her concerns regarding the governor’s 2020-2021 state budget proposal. “This budget is completely disingenuous as the Governor claims there are no new taxes in his proposal,” Bartolotta said. “The budget features a laundry list of new taxes and fees with a total of $1.5 billion in new spending and more than a billion dollars in new borrowing — and he expects taxpayers to foot the bill.”

She said, “A sustainable budget has no room for gimmicks, which is exactly what the Governor is attempting to do with his proposal to raid the Horse Race Development Trust Fund. This fund is financed by casinos, not tax dollars, and exists for the sole purpose of supporting the horse racing industry. Robbing this fund which benefits our local racing community not only threatens a significant job creator in the area, but it also stifles tourism dollars and opportunities with fifteen community fairs that have made horse racing a key attraction for decades.

“Despite the governor’s rhetoric today, I am committed to working with all of my colleagues to create a realistic and responsible budget that solves the problems facing our communities without damaging our economy, the livelihood of tens of thousands of Pennsylvania workers, or the rights of our citizens,” said Bartolotta, whose district represents Pennsylvanians residing south of Pittsburgh.

“I have been a part of the racing industry in Pennsylvania all of my life,” said Wendi Graham of Kennett Square. She is the stallion & racing manager for the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association. “My husband is a thoroughbred race horse trainer, a retired steeplechase jockey, and his father and uncle were also steeplechase jockeys. 100 percent of my family’s household income is dependent on this industry. He is up before most people in the morning, when it is still completely dark outside. He has to take care of the horses on Thanksgiving, Easter, and, yes, even Christmas. He is at the farm when it is 98 degrees or 12 degrees. There are no days off.”

She continued, “Horses are a 365 day per year commitment. And we do it because we love it, no matter the sacrifices. We are homeowners, and my husband also rents a small farm. If Governor Wolf is allowed to raid this trust fund, I will lose my job and my husband’s business will suffer drastically as well. We would probably be forced to move out of state to find work, and uproot our whole lives. Everything we have worked extremely hard for is on the line.”

Graham said, “There are about another 19,999 people in this state who are just like me. Good, honest, hard working people.”

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