Raiding the race horsing fund bad for Pennsylvania

Last fall in Harrisburg, I participated in a discussion about southeastern regional priorities. Several topics arose, but the issue of debilitating student loan debt came up repeatedly as subtext to the questions of how we grow our economy; how we ensure a trained workforce; and how we encourage young people to stay in Pennsylvania after graduation.

Pennsylvania ranks among the top states in student loan debt, with graduates averaging debt of $35K. Carrying that much debt means many graduates are unable to afford to move into adulthood independently. A large number must work several jobs to meet expenses, and more than a few of our graduates will, unfortunately, default on their student loans, leaving them unable to build a sound foundation for the future.

In his 2020 state budget, Governor Tom Wolf has proposed student debt forgiveness for our PA state system graduates when they agree to stay in PA for 6 years after graduation. This is a bold initiative and worthy of exploration. The second oldest state in the US needs these skilled, eager young people to stay, work, and make a life in PA. On the surface there is not much to object to; however, the Governor’s proposal would be paid for with $200 million from the PA State Horse Racing Development Fund.

This fund was created by Act 71 of 2004 and uses proceeds from slots to support breeding of top-level race horses, to further strengthen our agricultural economy. In this budget scenario, the issue of addressing PA student loan debt now quickly becomes swapping futures, those of hard-working families and business owners for the futures of our kids. The film Sophie’s Choice comes to mind.

I strongly reject the perception that the horse racing industry in our state is run exclusively by wealthy horse owners and that the only ones who benefit economically are owners. Many owners form partnerships in order to share costs, and the cost to breed, train and care for a race horse is steep. It’s also a well- documented fact that this industry supports our local, regional, and state economy.

The list of direct and downstream businesses includes breeders, owners, trainers, farms that lease space, the breeding and training facility owners and workers, mechanics, manure haulers and composters, small and large animal veterinarians, veterinary pharmaceuticals, grain and hay farmers, feed and supply businesses (a business my family was in for nearly 100 years), shipping and transport, hotel and restaurant, software and many more. At this point it becomes difficult to separate the racing industry impact from the broader equine economy here. In addition, all of these businesses contribute greatly to our open space and agricultural legacy in southeastern PA. The impact of drastically reducing the race horse development fund for Chester County would be devastating. Chester County families would feel this acutely. The impact to southeastern PA would also be significant, and you may have heard the old saying, “as the southeast goes, so goes the state.”

I am known to use the phrase “and, not or” frequently. It’s a family motto, actually. I strive to think outside the box and to include all possibilities when problem solving. This is definitely an “and” situation. I believe it is entirely possible to offer student loan forgiveness to our state system grads that remain in PA for six years AND protect one of the biggest economic drivers in the state. Let’s begin by taking a long, clear look at the over $500 million in tax breaks our state grants annually.

Some of that money is well spent, but it’s time to evaluate our options, weigh them against each other in an open and transparent manner, fully understanding the implications. This proposed swap is unnecessary and counter- productive. The futures of our Chester County economy and our Pennsylvania families are in the balance. It’s AND, not OR. Let’s keep working on this.