Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP races to tear up VLT deal

Bill to end contract with jockey club and prevent lawsuit introduced

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The Selinger government introduced a budget bill Thursday that would empower it to rip up its VLT agreement with the Manitoba Jockey Club and attempt to deflect criticism over subsidies paid to political parties.

The 62-page Budget Implementation and Tax Statutes Amendment Act (BITSA) bill is a grab bag of amendments to statutes and regulations.

It's the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between the province and the jockey club over funding from VLTs.

The provincial government announced in its April budget it would redirect millions of dollars provided annually to Assiniboia Downs with legislation to break the VLT contract between Manitoba Lotteries and the jockey club, allowing it to remove the VLTs at the Downs and place them elsewhere.

The BITSA bill, announced Thursday, would allow the government to slash video-lottery-terminal revenue to the jockey club from VLTs at Assiniboia Downs by $5 million per year, as it previously announced.

'It's not a surprise that Minister Struthers is continuing in his attempts to bankrupt the jockey club and to destroy horse racing and the thoroughbred industry in the province of Manitoba'

-- Jeff Rath, lawyer for the Manitoba Jockey Club, which operates horse racing at Assiniboia Downs

The bill would also bar the jockey club from suing the province over that decision -- although it would not prevent civil actions such as the one the club launched against the government, Finance Minister Stan Struthers and the Red River Exhibition last week.

The bill would also allow the government to steer a portion of parimutuel-levy revenues to rural harness racing.

Struthers said government subsidies to horse racing are far too rich given the current economic climate. He said the industry has received 90 per cent of its funding from the public purse.

That's untenable at a time when the government is struggling to maintain health care and other core services, the minister said. "From horses to hospitals is the way that I see it," Struthers said of the government's decision to reduce the jockey club's take from VLTs.

A new VLT-revenue arrangement to be imposed on the jockey club 60 days after the BITSA bill receives royal assent will be in line with what other site-holders receive, the government said.

'From horses to hospitals is the way that I see it'

-- Finance Minister Stan Struthers (left), on how the government plans to redirect government funding from the Manitoba Jockey Club to health care and other core services

Jockey club lawyer Jeff Rath said the legislation was expected.

"It's not a surprise that Minister Struthers is continuing in his attempts to bankrupt the jockey club and to destroy horse racing and the thoroughbred industry in the province of Manitoba," Rath said.

He also said Bill 47 and Bill 43, tabled earlier this month to merge the Manitoba Lotteries Corp. and Manitoba Liquor Control Commission, "shield" Struthers and other government officials from future court action when site-holder agreements for lottery terminals are terminated or VLTs are removed from a site-holder's premise.

"It's pretty remarkable," Rath said. "It's the province's attempt to use, unconstitutionally, its power over property and civil rights, to annihilate property and civil rights in the province."

Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said the government failed to consult sufficiently with the horse-racing industry about the impact of its VLT proposal before implementing it. He accused the province of acting in a "belligerent" and "arbitrary" manner.

"I'm very concerned that the future of our industry is put in jeopardy by the nature of the bill," Pallister said.

The BITSA bill will also reduce the public subsidy the two major political parties are eligible to receive for operating and administrative expenses.

An independent allowances commissioner recommended earlier this year the five registered political parties divide $600,000 per annum based on the number of candidates they endorsed in the last provincial election and the number of votes they received in the past two elections. The NDP stood to receive $278,811 for 2012, while the Conservatives were eligible for $242,712, the Liberals $63,255, the Greens $14,449 and the Communists $773.

The budget bill would cut the amount payable to the two major parties by 30 per cent, while maintaining subsidies to the smaller parties at the level proposed by the commissioner. That means the NDP would be eligible for $195,168, which the party has decided to accept.

The Tories have steadfastly refused the subsidy and Pallister said Thursday reducing the amount doesn't change that.

"Political parties should earn their own money by going out and asking for support," he said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2013 A3

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