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NDP bungles the race

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Horse racing at Assiniboia Downs

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The Selinger government abused its power, broke the law and waged a belligerent campaign of deception and deceit in its failed effort to undermine the Manitoba Jockey Club (MJC), the non-profit group that operates Assiniboia Downs.

The settlement reached this week can fairly be described as hush money to silence the feisty jockey club, which has decided to drop its resistance, even though it now has less revenue than before.

The government said a year ago it was cutting the organization's share of VLT revenues from 140 machines because it could no longer afford to subsidize horse racing when the money was needed for health care.

In fact, there were no government subsidies to the Downs, anymore than the VLT revenue raised in hotels constitutes a subsidy to hotels.

Like the MTS Centre's casino, the jockey club had received an enhanced share of VLT revenue, which will now be reduced and replaced with annual grants over a 10-year period. The total amount, however, could well be less than what the Downs would have earned under the original gaming agreement.

The so-called government grants of about $5 million a year for the first eight years are roughly equal to the share of VLT revenue the Downs used to keep.

The NDP has also decided to collect a larger share of the revenue earned in betting every season. A court last year ruled then-finance minister Stan Struthers had broken the law by refusing to rebate such monies, which are intended to support horse racing.

The government, of course, claimed from the beginning it was only interested in ensuring the survival of horse racing.

That might be true, but the jockey club suspected and alleged in court the government wanted to squeeze the organization so it would sell its large landholdings to the nearby Red River Exhibition Association.

The Ex has plans for a major expansion, including a hotel and conference centre. Unfortunately for the Ex, however, the jockey club has formed a partnership with Peguis First Nation, which has similar plans for the land around the racetrack.

The two groups might have found a way to co-operate, but the year-long dispute with the government has poisoned the relationship and any potential for co-ordinated development on the western side of the Perimeter Highway.

That is the real cost of the NDP's decision to manipulate the process by quietly favouring one group, while openly trying to undermine the other.

The NDP mismanaged the file from Day 1 when it announced its plan to cut revenues to the Downs without consulting the owners or negotiating a new arrangement. They started a fight and squeaked out a small financial victory, but paid a heavy price in terms of the public trust.

They rolled the dice and lost.

The least the government can do now is tell the public how much cash was invested in lawyers, consultants and reports to topple the jockey club.

That's money, by the way, that could have been spent on health care.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2014 A10

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