Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Struthers a dead horse

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Manitoba's NDP government broke the law and abused its power in what appears to have been a spiteful attempt to force Assiniboia Downs to cease operations and sell its land and racetrack to another party favoured by the province.

If the same thing had happened in the private sector, the offending party might have been fined for damages and breach of duty, but the judge in this case settled for a written reprimand and reminder that even governments are bound by the rule of law.

Finance Minister Stan Struthers, who leads the war against the Manitoba Jockey Club, which owns the Downs, should resign -- he broke the law, and his credibility and integrity have been called into question, and not for the first time.

This is the same minister who said the province needed to hike the PST because of the flood threat and the economic downturn, neither of which was true. Mr. Struthers also misled the legislature last year on the number of Jets tickets he received from public and private sources.

If the government still wishes to alter its agreement with the Downs, it should appoint a new minister who is untainted by the animosity that clearly emanates from Mr. Struthers at the jockey club.

Queen's Bench Justice Robert Dewar ruled Mr. Struthers broke the Pari-Mutuel Levy Fund Act, which requires the province to authorize the Downs to spend a levy it collects on betting. The sole purpose of the levy is to support horse racing. Yet Mr. Struthers refused to hand over the money (roughly $2.5 million) because he said he intended to change the legislation in the future. That's akin to charging someone for an offence that isn't illegal today on the grounds it will be illegal in the future.

The government could pass legislation allowing it to keep the levy for the common good, although probably not without another court battle.

The government also plans to introduce legislation to reduce or eliminate the Downs' VLT revenues, currently about $6.5 million.

The NDP calls the VLT revenue and the parimutuel levy public grants, which it wants to redirect to health care and other core services, but every nickel is derived from activities at the Downs and wouldn't exist without horse racing.

The province has suggested horse racing is a dying sport, but no evidence has been presented to support that thesis.

For its part, the jockey club believes its future is bright, particularly after it signed agreements for a new hotel near the track, which it believes will strengthen its bottom line.

Those plans, however, could conflict with another private initiative for one or two hotels and retail stores on land Shindico has agreed to buy from the adjacent Red River Exhibition Association. The Ex also wants to expand its footprint in the area and has made several attempts to take over the Downs.

The fact the MTS Iceplex, where the Jets practise, is located in the same neighbourhood, along with a dozen automobile dealerships, has fuelled interest in land acquisition on the city's western boundary.

The jockey club suspects the government believes it is in the way of grander plans for the district. If so, Mr. Struthers has bungled the attempt to move them out, and his departure is necessary to restore confidence in the process.

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 May 8, 2013 A8

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