Many members of Ontario's horse industry are looking at tomorrow's vote on a budget proposal from Premier Dalton McGuinty and Finance Minister Dwight Duncan as a do-or-die moment for their business.
It's pretty simple. If the budget by the ruling Liberal Party is passed, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation's Slots At Racetracks program is dead, effective in 2013. If the Liberals fail to get a majority vote (and they have 52 members of the 107-member parliament, excluding the House Speaker, with 37 in the Progressive Conservative Party, and 17 in the New Democratic Party), a new parliamentary election will be triggered, allowing those with investments or jobs in the horse industry to cling to the hope that recent decisions to end the Slots At Racetracks program may be overturned.
If the budget fails to pass, an election for a new government is likely to be held May 24. The current parliament was elected last Oct. 6.
Horsemen are hoping for a budget stalemate, but McGuinty and Andrea Horwath, the leader of the even more liberal New Democratic Party, have been holding 11th-hour talks to forge an agreement before Tuesday's deadline. The Liberals need at least two votes from the NDP to get the budget deal done.
Both Liberals and New Democratic Party members are fine with ending the Slots At Racetracks program, or at least going back to square one to negotiate a new agreement. McGuinty and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation are confident that taking slots out of racetracks and opening multiple casinos in more densely populated portions of Ontario will result in far greater revenue to government programs.
Horsemen are hoping that a new election could bring back to power the Progressive Conservative Party, which originally approved the slots program in the late 1990s.
Since then, Ontario's horse business has been strong, but the loss of revenue from the Slots At Racetracks program could deal a devastating blow to tracks, owners, and breeders and the estimated 60,000 direct and indirect jobs the industry sustains throughout the province.
Many of those jobs are in rural sections of Ontario, where the Liberal Party and New Democratic Party are not popular.
Woodbine racetrack was on life support when slots were introduced in 2000. Since then, the Woodbine Entertainment Group has poured millions of dollars into purses and upgrades to the racing and gaming facility that in many ways is a model for how the marriage of pari-mutuel and casino gambling can work.
Since the introduction of Slots At Racetracks, breeders awards in Ontario have more than doubled to $3.2 million in 2011. The foal crop, while declining in North America by 35% from 2000-2012, has grown by 15% over that same period, from 1,138 registered Ontario foals to 1,314 (in 2010). The percentage of North American foals born in Ontario has grown from 3.1% to 4.4%. Average book size per stallion has also risen, indicating an increasingly higher quality of sires to stand in the province.
It's safe to say all those numbers will begin to plummet, almost immediately, if the budget that includes the termination of the Slots At Racetracks program is passed.
The end of that program is not the sticking point between the two parties seeking a budget compromise by Tuesday. What's holding up the deal, according to published reports, is the NDP's insistence on a surtax on incomes above $500,000 annually, something McGuinty adamantly opposes.
The horse industry has been well organized through the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association (click here for more information) in fighting this potentially devastating loss of revenue. But the leaders of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation and the Liberal Party clearly don't see the benefit of the tens of thousands of jobs the horse industry creates and sustains. They also don't see the inequity of how the horse industry started out as a willing partner in the expansion of gaming, but are now in jeopardy of being squeezed out of existence by greed and politics.
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