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Why it’s so hard to kill horse racing subsidies

Billionaires are easy targets for lawmakers. Farmers aren't

  • Ed Mahon
Patti Murphy, seen on  Feb. 11, 2020, has worked at Hanover Shoe Farms for 20 years.

 Ed Mahon / PA Post

Patti Murphy, seen on Feb. 11, 2020, has worked at Hanover Shoe Farms for 20 years.

As the odds of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic Party presidential nomination increase, I’ve spent more time reading about the self-described democratic socialist’s background. I knew about his upset win for mayor of Burlington, Vermont, mayor back in 1981. But I didn’t know that he campaigned against a property tax increase being pushed by the incumbent mayor that he viewed as too regressive. …Just goes to show: Lots of people hate property taxes!  (It’s worth mentioning, they remain hard to kill.) —Ed Mahon, PA Post reporter

Ed Mahon / PA Post

Patti Murphy, seen on Feb. 11, 2020, has worked at Hanover Shoe Farms for 20 years. (Ed Mahon / PA Post)

I never really understood why Pennsylvania’s roughly $200 million horse racing subsidy was so hard to get rid of until I met Patti Murphy and Kyle Arentz.

I knew that Pennsylvania sends a lot of money to the owners and farms involved in horse racing. A USA TODAY Network investigation published last year found that the state leads the “nation in race horse subsidies ($240 million per year) and total horse deaths (556) from 2014 through 2018.”

I knew the money comes from a tax on slot machines. And thanks to this Tribune-Review story from 2015 , I knew that many people who live out of state benefit from the subsidy. The list of racehorse owners getting subsidies included the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi prince and the president of a Canadian food company.

I knew the conservative Commonwealth Foundation considered the money a “symbol of government waste.”

All those factors make it seem like the $200 million would be a pretty easy target for lawmakers, particularly in tight budget times. But workers like Murphy and Arentz aren’t easy targets.

Murphy, 55, has worked with horses most of her life and is now the manager at Hanover Shoe Farms, which covers about 3,000 acres in York and Adams counties. Arentz, 27, works for his family’s business, which sells hay and straw to Hanover Shoe Farms.

Both said they worry that if the state cuts $200 million from race horse funding, those cuts will quickly flow down and hurt them.

Despite sharing the same fear, they had a different view about the governor’s call for college scholarships.

“I’m all for scholarships and educational benefits for everyone,” Murphy said. “But I think the money can come from other places.”

Arentz, on the other hand, sees the college scholarship idea as one more unnecessary handout.

Lawmakers brought up the job concerns during a House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee meeting Wednesday.

“I hear a lot about, you know, the Saudi sheikhs and the billionaires, and they’re taking advantage of all this money and everything,” said state Representative John Lawrence, a Republican representing parts of Chester and Lancaster counties. “In my experience, and what I’ve seen in my own district — this money is going to family farmers, selling hay bales off their own farm, to try to keep the operation in business.”

That’s why the issue is likely to be a tough fight for Wolf. But he’s still campaigning for it. On Wednesday, Wolf made his case at high school in Bucks County. And he said he plans to visit all 14-state-owned universities ahead of the June budget deadline. — Ed Mahon

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