Dufferin-Caledon MPP Sylvia Jones has spoken out in favour of the Ontario Auditor General looking into the McGuinty government’s decision to scrap the lucrative Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP).
Last March, the government announced that SARP would be cancelled next March, the reasoning being that the racetracks’ 20- per cent share of slot machine revenue on their properties – approximately $345 million in 2011-12 – would be better directed toward other public priorities, such as health and education.
The Progressive Conservatives have opposed the cancellation, warning that it would imperil the livelihoods of the estimated 60,000 people who work in the various aspects of the horse racing industry.
“The Liberal Government made the decision to scrap the Slots at Racetracks program without any consultation, without any warning, and with very little regard to the effect on the rural economy,” Ms. Jones maintained in a press release.
“I think those 60,000 Ontarians deserve an explanation, and I think it is clear they will not get one from this Government – so let’s get one from the Auditor General.”
Provincial agriculture minister Ted McMeekin has announced that the Ontario government would be offering $50 million to affected tracks to aid in their transition to life without slots revenue.
Yet, a panel comprised of former cabinet ministers has conducted a study and recently released an interim report that says that amount would not be sufficient.
The panel – consisting of former cabinet ministers New Democrat Elmer Buchanan, Conservative John Snobelen and Liberal John Wilkinson – did state, however, that it would be a mistake to reinstate the program and called such a move “poor public policy.”
Tory agriculture critic Ernie Hardeman said that “taking (slots) away from the racetracks is taking away jobs.”
Mr. Hardeman was quoted by the Brantford Expositor: “If all the racetracks don’t close, they may not all be gone, but even a very, very conservative estimate would be 30,000 of the jobs would be lost if we don’t have the slots at the racetrack and all the other attributes that deal with agriculture.”
Mr. McMeekin countered that “our government is focused on balancing its budget while protecting vital services that families rely on, like health care and education. That’s why any public transitional investment in the horse racing industry must include clear pub- lic-interest principles of fiscal accountability, transparency, a renewed focus on the consumer and a business case showing that each public dollar invested is returned to the province through tax revenues.
“This means the industry needs to display financial transparency.”
He added that the panel will “consult further with the industry to determine its willingness to work together in such a way that recognizes the public interest and the current fiscal climate.”
Meanwhile, the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association (OHRIA) has issued angry releases denouncing the cancellation.
Among other things, the OHRIA said termination of SARP would add $1.1 billion to the province’s annual deficit, since that is the current share of the slots revenues that goes to Queen’s Park.
It is also angered by what it refers to as “misleading” radio ads run by the Ontario Liberal Party where they refer to “wealthy racetrack owners.”
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan “needs to ensure he has his facts straight before he pulls the plug on this highly profitable OLG program,” said OHRIA president Sue Leslie. “Nothing is ‘secret’ about the OLG Slots at Racetrack program as the Ontario Liberals falsely claim in their attack ads.”
Ontario’s Horse Racing Industry is responsible for 31,441 full time jobs in Ontario, and up to 60,000 jobs when including part-time and seasonal work.
Horse racing industry expenses in Ontario total approximately $2 billion per year, according to OHRIA figures, with 80 per cent ($1.6 billion) of those expenses being incurred in rural Ontario.
The panel is expected to issue an updated report later this month.