Massachusetts Horse-racing legislation down to the wire

BOSTON —A year after legislative inaction brought all horse racing and simulcasting to a grinding halt in Massachusetts, state lawmakers are bringing the activities to the brink once again.

The House and Senate wrapped up sessions Tuesday afternoon without agreeing to a bill to extend the legal authority for horse racing and simulcasting. Without an extension, the activities will become illegal in Massachusetts on Thursday. By late Tuesday, each branch had proposed its own extension bill and a bevy of other changes to the racing and simulcasting laws.

The House on Monday passed a bill that would extend simulcasting and racing through March 31, 2020, and direct the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to submit to lawmakers recommendations for the "equitable administration and enforcement of simulcasting in the commonwealth after March 31, 2020."

The Senate on Tuesday passed a redrafted version of the House bill that would extend racing and simulcasting through July 31, 2020, and change how gaming revenue is allocated to direct more money towards education and less towards horse racing.

When the Senate sent its version of the bill back to the House, representatives voted against the Senate amendment and adjourned until Wednesday. The Senate then insisted on its version and also adjourned.

If the legal authority for racing and simulcasting is not extended -- meaning enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker — before Thursday, all racing and simulcasting must stop. Plainridge Park Casino, the only remaining host of live horse racing in Massachusetts, is planning to hold races on Thursday and Friday this week.

"So if it expires on Wednesday night, there would have to be calls going out to people to tell them not to come in the next day for racing," Alexandra Lightbown, the Gaming Commission's racing director, told lawmakers at a July 11 hearing.

Last year on Aug. 1, the Gaming Commission directed the state's tracks and simulcasting centers to cease operations until further notice because the Legislature did not extend their legal authority before it expired. It took about 36 hours until lawmakers again authorized them.

The racing and simulcasting landscape has changed substantially in the last year.

Plainridge Park is now the only live racing track in Massachusetts after Suffolk Downs closed its doors last month, spelling the end of thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts. Suffolk Downs continues to operate as a simulcast center, as does Plainridge Park and the former dog racing track in Raynham.

The end of live racing at Suffolk Downs was the impetus for some of the changes in the Senate's extension bill, Sen. Michael Rodrigues said.

In addition to a full-year extension, Rodrigues' bill would change the flow of gaming revenue to put less into the Race Horse Development Fund (RHDF), an account used to fund race purses and to promote the sport, and to put more money into the Education Fund created by the 2011 expanded gaming law.

Instead of contributing 9% of its gross gaming revenue to the RHDF as it currently is required to do, the slots parlor at Plainridge Park would be directed to split its contribution — 4 percent of its revenue going to the RHDF and another 5 percent going to the Education Fund, which is meant to supplement Chapter 70 school aid funding and higher education funding.

Rodrigues' bill would end the practice of having some gaming revenue from the state's full-scale casinos — MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor — flow into the RHDF.

The bill would do away with the requirement that 2.5% of revenue go to the RHDF and would increase the casinos' contribution to the Education Fund from 14% of revenue to 16.5% of revenue.

Rodrigues, the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said he is seeking the changes "to reflect the fact that there is no more racing at Suffolk Downs. Suffolk Downs racing is over."

He added, "This change ... would provide an additional $13.4 million in revenue to the commonwealth's Education Fund over the course of a full year."

Senate President Karen Spilka said the Senate's "actions acknowledge the role horse racing and simulcasting play in the Commonwealth while allowing us to increase state support for public education using existing revenues."

The House and Senate both return to action on Wednesday for what are expected to be the final formal sessions of the summer. Lawmakers typically take August off from legislating and return to formal sessions in September.

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