Pennsylvania is debating: horses or students?

Gov. Tom Wolf was the first to raise the question: Pennsylvania is spending more to subsidize the horse racing industry than education. The governor has already tried in 2020 to launch a proposal to divert conspicuous resources from a special racing fund to support university students. This first attempt did not get far. Horse racing has strong support in the state. The industry is very important for Pennsylvania, as you can see reading Twinspires PA review, which provides useful insights on upcoming horse racing events.

No wonder then that subsidies to Pennsylvania’s Racehorse Development Fund top $230 million annually. The Fund is the most generous in the US after New York. Its inception goes back to 1967, then it was vastly expanded in 2004, and since then, it has topped an unbelievable $3 billion. At the beginning of 2021, governor Wolf included in his new budget plan a proposal to shift $199 million from the Fund to educational assistance.

Come June, and the debate on the “students vs. horses” issue has heated up again.

A new report, published by Education Voters of Pennsylvania, points the finger again at that $ 3 billion public money. A senior policy analyst for the organization, Sharon Ward, was quoted by the BBC as saying: “It’s time for the industry to stand on its own two feet.” Ward painted a very critical picture of horse racing: “The bottom line is this: Hidden behind the lore and pageantry of horse racing is a crumbling industry, propped up with funds that have been robbed from our young people.”

The horse racing field has voiced their reasons too. Pete Peterson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, which represents horse owners and breeders in the state, is convinced that the proposal would absolutely destroy the horse racing industry and the more than 20,000 jobs that are associated with it”. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture had financed a report that analyzed the sector. The findings showed that racing directly supports about 7,400 jobs, while 8,000 more are connected to the industry. Pennsylvania’s total workforce is about six million.

More numbers show a huge disproportion in public support to students vs. horses. The Keystone Research Center reports that in 2019, each PASSHE student received $5,739 in state subsidies compared to a per-horse rate of  $15,271. Student debt in Pennsylvania is the second-highest in the US, and universities are struggling. Proof of that is the state’s plan to merge six state universities into two regional hubs. The merge would result in savings, but also in a loss of about 13% of university jobs, according to a study by the University of Massachutes.

The Pennsylvania racing industry is not going to give up on public support so easily. The six racetracks in the state are all in decline. They had been losing public for a while already, and the epidemics restrictions obviously did not help. The debate between opposing interests is likely to become hotter in the following months.