The fight, the one that's at least temporarily shut down all horse betting in the state of Texas, is over the ability of Texas horse track bettors to wager on the outcome of races that have already happened. Tracks want so-called historical racing terminals because they're almost identical, at least to the undiscerning eye, to slot machines. They've got reels, lights and buttons just like the genuine article. The horses in the historic races have been scrubbed of all identifying information and potential handicapping information is minimal. The terminals give people at tracks a way to make a bet that isn't based on local live action or a simulcast.
It's at least understandable then that Texas legislators who oppose the expansion of gambling in the state were upset when the Texas Racing Commission approved the machines. In November 2014 a state district court ruled that the commission had overstepped its authority. Historical racing did represent an expansion of gambling, the court said, something that can only be approved by the Legislature. Several Texas horse tracks have appealed that ruling.
In August, the TRC met to discuss scrubbing the rules that allow historical racing from its books. After track owners told the commission that they were willing to deal with the consequences of continuing to fight for historical racing, the commission voted to make no changes to its rules.
Monday night, the TRC and Texas' Legislative Budget Board were unable to reach a compromise in order to continue funding the TRC. Without funding, the commission can't regulate the horse tracks, so the TRC ordered racing and simulcasting around the state shut down at midnight Monday. Lila Smith, the TRC's director of pari-mutuel betting, said she would notify the tracks immediately as soon as the funding problem was solved.
Grand Prairie's Lone Star Park is keeping its sports bar and training facilities open and will host any banquets to which it was already committed, but that's it. "We hope this matter will be resolved quickly so we can resume hiring the 600-plus additional personnel needed for our fall season, which is scheduled to begin on September 18," Scott Wells, the track's president, said in a statement.
Shortly before the deadline, commission spokesman Robert Elrod wrote an email to reporters letting them know not to expect responses to any additional media inquiries because, for the time being, he was out of a job.
"I hope and think any shutdown will be brief and temporary," Elrod said. "In the event of a brief shutdown, the agency has the capability to resume operations very quickly and, if it does come to that, we’ll all be back on the job as soon as possible."
Jane Nelson, chair of the Texas Senate's Finance Committee, has called the TRC a "rogue agency."
“We have been looking for a way to avoid a shutdown,” Nelson said Monday. “Last week’s actions were disappointing, and we cannot look the other way when an agency exceeds its authority, defies the Constitution and picks fights with the Legislature.”
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Late Tuesday, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick announced that the Legislative Budget Board had come to an agreement to fund the TRC for 90 days:
"I am very pleased to announce that House Appropriations Chairman John Otto has joined the Senate Legislative Budget Board (LBB) members' plan to extend temporary administrative funding for the Texas Racing Commission. This authorization immediately allows the commission to operate for the next 90 days.
It also allows Governor Greg Abbott additional time to name members to the three expired terms of the Texas Racing Commission.
Any disagreement with the commission that resulted in this stalemate was never about ending horse and dog racing in Texas. Instead, it was about making sure the appointed commissioners follow the law as directed by the Legislature and a state district judge.
As long as Texas Governor Greg Abbott signs off on the agreement, the 90-day reprieve will allow the commission and the state time to work on a compromise that will keep Texas horse tracks open past the end of November. As of Tuesday night, the TRC and Texas horse tracks had not seen the agreement.
"We haven't seen the funding agreement being reported and we remain skeptical about the way it has been handled. A decision to provide the agency only three months of funding does not give the Texas racing industry the stability it needs to be successful. No business can survive in that environment. We still believe a full vote by the LBB is necessary. Absent that, we will be right back here in three months. As of now, we have not received any notification that we may resume simulcast racing," Andrea B. Young, the president of Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, said in a statement.