Pimlico Plus bill gets committee okay

Legislation to put the so-called “Pimlico Plus” project into motion received a favorable report from the Maryland House of Delegates’ Ways and Means Committee March 27. The bill, HB 1524, will head to the full House before the Senate takes it up, all of which must be complete by April 8, when the annual legislative session ends.

The vote on the bill was 18-4, with four of the six Republicans on the committee – Dels. Jason Buckel (Allegany County), Wayne Hartman (Wicomico and Worcester Counties), Robert Long (Baltimore County), and April Miller (Frederick County) – voting against the project.

The bill as passed was an amended version of the originally introduced legislation with what counsel Goerge Butler described as “technical and clarifying changes.” Notable among those was a new provision authorizing Gov. Wes Moore (D) to transfer, via budget amendment, funds from the racing facilities fund to a racing operations fund.

Much of the discussion involved Del. Buckel quizzing Butler about various provisions of the legislation in a skeptical tone.

“I’m so disenchanted with horse racing,” Buckel said at one point.

In all, the bill will, if passed, authorize the issuance of up to $400 million in bonds to support the rebuilding of Pimlico and the acquisition of land and creation of a training center. It will ultimately lead to the closure of Laurel Park, the concentration of the state’s racing at Pimlico, and the replacement of private ownership entities with a nonprofit organization operating the facilities on behalf of the state-created Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority.

MTROA chairman Greg Cross has previously called this approach a “bet on ourselves model” and claimed in earlier testimony to the committee that he expected the nonprofit organization to operate financially at break-even or better. The Stronach Group, which currently owns Laurel and Pimlico, previously told the MTROA that it had lost money every year for a decade, with annual operating losses exceeding $10 million in five of those years.

The bonds would be paid off via a combination of mechanisms, including moneys from the Racetrack Facilities Renewal Account (RFRA) and through annual contributions from the state’s horsemen and breeders. HB 1524 adds two additional revenue sources: moving sales tax on claimed horses from the general fund into bond repayment and taking the share of RFRA that would otherwise have gone to Rosecroft, the Fort Washington harness track.

The latter provision in particular has caused some angst, with a panel of harness horsemen speaking against the legislation at its March 19 hearing. They prefer permitting Ocean Downs, the harness facility near Ocean City, to tap those funds should Rosecroft close. That would permit Ocean Downs to winterize its facility and run a longer meet, partially making up for the loss of Roscroft, they say.

Separately, earlier this week, state Senate President Bill Ferguson told Maryland Matters that he wanted to see the public’s financial exposure to cost overruns limited.

“I don’t feel comfortable putting before the Senate anything that does have uncapped costs,” he told the website. “We have to be very responsible in our fiscal duties today and into the future. And so, anything that would move forward in the Senate would have to be positioned in a way that doesn’t have an uncapped amount that could go down the line for operating for an industry.”