Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is feeling some heat from horsemen and their supporters after proposing to divert a significant portion of a fund used to support the state’s racing industry toward a college scholarship program instead.
The governor visited West Chester University on Thursday to promote the Nellie Bly Scholarship Program, an initiative he introduced in his budget proposal last week. The $204 million proposal would provide scholarship funding for students attending any of the 14 state-run colleges, filling the gap between grant funding students receive and the actual cost of tuition.
The scholarship is named after Bly, a Pennsylvania native who could not afford the cost of tuition. She became a famous journalist whose work in the 19th century brought about changes to mental health treatment in the U.S.
Wolf said the goals of the program are to alleviate students from college loan debts and retain the state’s best and brightest workers. If a recipient leaves the state, they must repay the money.
“With less college debt, graduates can buy a car and a home, start a family and save for retirement,” Wolf said. “The program also strengthens our public university system and creates a talented labor force that Pennsylvania needs to thrive.”
The program would be funded from money currently going to the state’s Race Horse Development Trust Fund. That money is generated from slot machine gaming revenue.
According to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, the fund received $240.4 million in 2018, with $152.6 million going to purses for races at the state’s thoroughbred and harness tracks.
Horsemen have attacked the plan since Wolf first announced it, saying the move would devastate the racing industry. Not only would tracks be affected, but breeders and those who raise thoroughbred and standardbred horses in the state.
“Instead of the governor destroying an industry and family farms to create a program that holds our young people hostage by forcing them to stay in Pennsylvania, why doesn’t the governor focus on creating a state that makes students want to stay?” asked Heather Hunter, according to the Daily Local in Chester County.
Hunter, who works at her family’s horse farm, has a son who attends West Chester, the newspaper said.
Some lawmakers have expressed concerns as well, including state Rep. Sue Helm, R-Susquehanna Township. Helm’s district includes the Penn National Race Course near Harrisburg.
“If this account is raided for the furtherment of the governor’s budget priorities, it would essentially bankrupt the industry,” Helm said in a statement earlier this week. “It would mean the end of horseracing in Pennsylvania.”
Still, Wolf’s plan has supporters, and that includes an organization that often criticizes the governor’s policies.
While the Commonwealth Foundation still had several concerns about Wolf’s budget overall, it said the plan to move the funding to support higher education costs was one of the few positives the group saw in the spending plan.
“This is a revenue stream that should be brought into the General Fund, allowing lawmakers to prioritize spending and protect working families from tax increases,” the foundation said in a statement.