With provincial byelections in Kitchener-Waterloo and Vaughan just weeks away, Ontario’s beleaguered horse racing industry has again found itself swept up in the political spin cycle.
Since February, the ruling Liberals have been fond of trying to hoodwink taxpayers into believing horse racing’s 20 per cent cut of revenue from the slots-at-racetracks program was a subsidy the financially-challenged province could ill afford.
The truth is, cancelling the slots-at-racetracks program is a decision Ontarians can ill afford.
Don’t believe your tax dollars are going to horse racing. The program is not a subsidy. It is a revenue-generating business partnership that annually returns $1.1 billion directly to Ontarians and drives some $2 billion in economic activity.
Yet, it was no surprise Aug. 8 when Premier Dalton McGuinty tried to paint the Progressive Conservatives as fools for choosing horse racing over full-day kindergarten. By now it’s an old trick indicating the Liberals’ decision to cancel the slots program effective next March, was more about political games than fiscal sense.
After all, a $16 billion deficit and a string of scandals — Ornge, eHealth, the $190 million bill we’re all stuck with to move a power plant so the Liberals could win a seat — indicate “fiscal sense” is a concept which the current government has scant association.
Sad then, that the premier prefers to stick it Ontarians yet again by championing full-day kindergarten against the advice of economist Don Drummond. That program will cost a further $1.5 billion at a time when the province clearly doesn’t have the money.
At the same time, does it make any sense that the province is eliminating its most lucrative gaming revenue source? The slots-at-racetracks program brings in more money than lotteries or Ontario’s resort casinos, which are, in fact, bleeding red ink.
Sure, the Ontario Lottery Gaming corporation wants you to believe it can do even better with its ambitious plans to place casinos in 29 gaming zones across the province.
Except, the plan has more than a few flaws, not the least of which is unrealistic timelines and growing community opposition to gaming expansion. The strategy also aims to turn slots over to largely U.S-owned casino companies that will take more than racing’s 20 per cent cut out of the province.
Why would taxpayers want to gamble on a risky, unproven gaming strategy over the current one that works phenomenally well?
Yet, the government has been particularly stubborn on killing the slots-at-racetracks program despite mounting and overwhelming evidence it’s the wrong decision. Many inside the industry say there is no changing the government’s mind. The slots deal is dead.
To that I say, this is a premier who vowed not to raise taxes and then raised them, significantly. This is a government that promised to build a power plant in Mississauga and then moved it when it benefited them politically.
Surely, a government gifted at spin could find a way to tweak the existing slots-at-racetracks program, improve performance standards, decrease the industry’s cut, call it something else and keep some measure of a program that employs thousands, many of them in the Guelph region. That’s an easy one to sell.
Yet, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan is unmoved about the fact ending the slots-at-racetracks program will likely lead to higher taxes for all, or, worse, that it will be catastrophic for those that work in a horse racing sector that, thanks to slots, has become a world leader.
Yet, whether it’s 30,000 or 5,800 jobs lost, as Duncan wrongly asserts, isn’t really the point. Explain to me how intentionally and unnecessarily throwing people out of work helps a sputtering economy.
But I guess when it’s people that work with horses and not in auto plants, the implication is it’s simply collateral damage in rural ridings that, largely, didn’t vote Liberal last time.
Horse racing doesn’t deserve a share of slot revenue in privately-owned racetracks, the Liberals say. I guess if the government wanted to put slot machines in your home or business, you shouldn’t expect anything in return, either.
The spin on this one is that racing’s cut would be better spent on hip replacements and home care for the elderly.
All of which sounds great, except it’s complete bunk.
The truth is, the slots-at-racetracks program — along with the likes of the LCBO — is already one of the government’s great financial contributors to health care and education.
In fact, slots at tracks helps fund expensive programs like full-day kindergarten.
Even a guy who only went to half-day kindergarten can figure out the slots deal is a fantastic program for everyone and one well worth preserving.
Dave Briggs is the publisher and editor of The Canadian Sportsman, the oldest harness racing magazine in North America. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org