Lawmakers discuss temporary racing commission funding fix
AUSTIN — Unable to agree on whether to defund the Texas Racing Commission for its approval of a controversial new form of betting, state lawmakers are discussing a compromise that would allow the agency’s leaders to stay on the job temporarily.
Chuck Trout, the commission’s executive director, formally requested three months of money Monday, the day before a deadline for the Legislative Budget Board to approve funding before the start of the next fiscal year.
As he has said in the past, Trout wrote in a letter to lawmakers that if the board does not release the funding for the commission’s central administration by the deadline, the agency could not pay its employees and would be forced to close. Because state law requires commission staff to oversee races, that would force the entire multi-million dollar horse racing industry to close, Trout has said.
On Monday, he added the new details that such a closure would prevent staffers from getting final paychecks and the commission from complying with the public-records law.
Temporary funding would at the very least “allow the agency to wind down operations in an orderly fashion that would be greatly beneficial to our employees, licensees, the entire pari-mutel racing industry and the State of Texas as a whole,” Trout said.
Legislative Budget Board leadership was discussing the compromise Monday afternoon, according to three people briefed on the negotiations who were not authorized to speak publicly.
The board is run by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state House Speaker Joe Straus, but the two leaders are deadlocked, with Patrick determined to defund the commission and Straus — whose family is involved in horse racing — set on saving it.
The dispute centers around the approval of “historical racing,” which allows players to bet on previously-run races that have been stripped of identifying markings. The game could bring in significant revenue for the state’s struggling horse tracks, but it has drawn criticism because its terminals resemble slot machines.
Patrick and Senate budget writer Jane Nelson, among others, believe the commission did not have the authority to approve the game because it would expand gambling. In response to the approval, they put part of the agency’s budget under control of the budget board.
The amount of money in dispute is only about $1.6 million, but it is that money that pays the central staffers of the commission and rent for its buildings.
Still, the commission voted last week not to repeal its authorization of “historical racing,” surprising lawmakers.