Finance Minister Stan Struthers has to obey the law -- until the law is changed.
That was the ruling Monday afternoon from Justice Robert Dewar in a dispute between the Selinger government and the Manitoba Jockey Club, which operates Assiniboia Downs.
Dewar ordered Struthers to release funds to Assiniboia Downs raised through a levy on wagering at the track, money that supports purse winnings there.
"Governments, and ministers, cannot do anything they please," Dewar stated in a 25-page written ruling.
The Manitoba Jockey Club was challenging the Selinger government's plan to slash $5 million in funding the jockey club receives through VLT revenues and money distributed by the Horse Racing Commission from a levy on every bet made at the track.
The ruling was applauded by both Struthers and the Manitoba Jockey Club, with both sides claiming victory Monday afternoon.
"It was an unequivocal victory for the Manitoba Jockey Club," lawyer Jeff Rath said following the hearing.
"The minister (Struthers) does not have the authority to... strangle horse racing to death to further his own political agenda."
Jockey club CEO Darren Dunn said he and the horse-racing industry were pleased with the ruling, but added the dispute should not have gone to such a level.
"We shouldn't be standing here having to deal with this," Dunn said, adding the focus should be on the new season.
Struthers said he also was gratified by the judge's decision.
"I'm very pleased that the judge underscored our authority to move forward with the changes to the parimutuel levy act and with the VLT site holders agreement that we have with the Manitoba Jockey Club," he said outside his office at the legislative building.
Struthers said it was never the government's intention to remove some $5 million in annual subsidies to the jockey club without legislative changes. A bill will be tabled in the house this spring to do that.
In last month's budget speech, Struthers said the government planned to redirect monies that had been going to the track to other government programs.
The jockey club alleged the funding cut is illegal and part of the government's plan to force the jockey club into bankruptcy and turn over Assiniboia Downs to its neighbour, the Red River Exhibition.
The jockey club asked the court for an order keeping the money in place until proper negotiations have taken place. The jockey club has also asked the RCMP to investigate its allegations and Struthers' actions.
Dewar said he would not comment on the jockey club allegations. Struthers said he was also pleased the ruling did not deal with the allegations.
Dewar said it's not the court's role to tell the government how to spend its resources, but added the actions of governments and their ministers are subject to judicial oversight and they have to obey the law.
Dewar said the betting fund was set up to benefit the horse-racing community and Struthers was delaying its release to the jockey club because he wanted to spend it elsewhere. However, Dewar said that money -- for now -- belongs to the horse-racing community, not the province.
"The province has no proprietary interest in these monies," Dewar stated, and ordered Struthers to release the funds.
Dewar said the VLT revenue also belongs to the jockey club through a contract with Manitoba Lotteries. However, Dewar said the government could pass a law that breaks the Lotteries contract and remove the VLTs now at the track.
Dewar said the club can pursue any dispute over the VLT revenue through normal legal action.
-- With files from Larry Kusch