Employees at the racetrack at Plainridge Park Casino into late Wednesday night were waiting to find out if they should show up for work today as a legislative stalemate had put harness racing there in jeopardy for a second year in a row.
Legislators Wednesday night were burning the midnight oil trying to pass last-minute legislation to keep the races on, which they finally approved at 12:11 a.m. this morning as they recessed for this legislative session.
A similar dispute caused Plainridge to stop racing for a few days last year before the Legislature acted.
Legislation allowing racing in Massachusetts was set to expire Thursday and the House and Senate had been unable to agree on a compromise bill to reauthorize it.
State Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, and other Attleboro area legislators, including Sen. Paul Feeney, D-Foxboro, had been working on a resolution throughout Wednesday, and Dooley said Wednesday night he was confident an agreement would be reached.
“This is people’s livelihood we are talking about — any differences that the House and Senate have should be worked out at a later date when all stakeholders can weigh in — not in a last minute bill that will put people out of work, even if it is only for a day,” Dooley said, adding of Feeney and himself, “I think we have both been able to get this point across.”
If there was no agreement, Plainridge would have been unable to hold its scheduled racing today and beyond.
The casino portion of Plainridge would have remained open.
“The only people who will be hurt are the horsemen and the people at Plainridge who work on the racing side,” Dooley said.
The dispute between the House and Senate appeared to center on how taxes on slot machines should be distributed.
There is a 49 percent tax on Plainridge’s 1,250 slot machines. Nine percent of that goes into a horse racing development fund to help support the industry.
The Senate wanted to take more than half of the 9 percent and put it toward education instead of horse racing, arguing that with Suffolk Downs in Boston out of business, Plainridge is the only racetrack left in the state.
The House adjourned without adopting the change and there have been arguments that the money is needed for a potential future racetrack in Central Massachusetts.
Dooley, whose district includes Plainridge, said the dispute is all “inside baseball” and it’s a shame the Legislature had let the matter come down to the last minute before acting.
State Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, also represents the area and said she spoke to Senate leaders about getting the bill passed.
In addition to the tax issue, she said the Senate wanted to extend racing for a year while the House bill called for the legislation to expire in March.
More details of the new legislation are still being learned.
A midnight compromise in the Legislature means Plainridge Park Casino can continue horse racing for the rest of its season, but the measure failed to settle a related dispute between the House and Senate over taxes.
Legislation allowing harness racing and simulcasting at Plainridge was set to expire Thursday because of a stalemate on Beacon Hill.
Rather than contend with contentious issues surrounding the matter, the Legislature, at about midnight Wednesday, merely extended existing language until Jan 15, 2020.
That meant Thursday's schedule meet at Plainridge off Route 1 in Plainville was all set to go.
A frustrated state Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, said he was glad racing was allowed to continued but could not understand why the Legislature waited until literally the last minute to deal with the issue.
He said it was known for a year that the legislation would expire Aug. 1, but the issue was not considered until this week.
The point of contention is where taxes from slot machines at Plainridge's casino should go.
Currently, the machines at Plainridge are taxed at 49 percent with 9 percent going to a horse racing development fund.
The Senate wanted to redirect some of that 9 percent toward education, reasoning that with Suffolk Downs in Boston closed, Plainridge is the only race track in the state so only half as much money is needed.
The House was opposed to making the change without hearings and deliberation.
Dooley said he is willing to consider a change, but it should be done in an orderly way through the normal process of hearings and debate because more information is needed.
"I don't know all the angles," he said.
He also said he would like future legislation on racing and simulcasting to authorize them for a number of years rather than debating it each year.
Last year racing temporarily stopped at Plainridge because of the lateness of authorizing legislation.
State Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, who, like Dooley, represents the towns around Plainridge, said she was glad the temporary measure got passed on time to keep racing going.
Dooley also said state Sen. Paul Feeney, D-Foxboro, whose towns include farms that do business with Plainridge, was instrumental in pressing for passage on the Senate side.
Because the bill was passed about midnight, Dooley said legislators had to sit around the Statehouse for about eight hours waiting for a vote.
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