When long-awaited legislation to renovate Maryland’s two main horse tracks is introduced next week, it will carry the backing of powerful lead sponsors — House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-Howard), the chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, Maryland Matters has learned.
Their presence on the legislation sends strong internal and external messages and all but guarantees that the General Assembly will approve a racing bill this session.
Even with influential backers, the introduction of measures to modernize the aging facilities — Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes, and Laurel Park — is certain to trigger a robust debate about racing in Maryland. It will also serve as a window into behind-the-scenes efforts to put the sport on firmer footing.
Discussions about how to modernize racing in Maryland last year turned acrimonious.
Legislators from the Baltimore region were concerned that the Preakness, the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown, might leave the city. They skirmished with lawmakers from Prince George’s County who were fighting to get upgrades to Laurel — the most active and lucrative track in the state — and a training facility in Bowie.
After lawmakers adjourned in April, a small group of industry representatives decided to put aside past differences and craft a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to refurbish both facilities.
Monday will mark the first time that anyone outside that small group has seen a detailed proposal to fund the $375.5 million plan.
In an interview on Friday, Guzzone said the racing bill is “really important legislation” that has the potential to keep the Preakness in Baltimore, upgrade the Laurel track and create community benefits that the residents of the Pimlico neighborhood can enjoy all year long.
He also predicted that lawmakers will figure out how to pay back the bonds needed to finance the projects, an issue that remains unresolved.
“I believe that the plan that we’re going to put forward pulls together everything that’s needed to make it happen in a reasonable and responsible way,” Guzzone said.
In a statement provided Friday to Maryland Matters, Jones’ top aide said the speaker sees the forthcoming legislation as “critically important” to the entire region.
“As the Speaker has indicated over the past several months, preserving the Preakness in Baltimore is critically important to the economic development and heritage of the Baltimore region,” said Alexandra M. Hughes, Jones’ chief of staff. “Last week, the Majority Leader convened a House Workgroup on the Racing and Community Development Act of 2020 and will be working with Ways & Means and Appropriations members from several jurisdictions to ensure that this legislation is a win-win for impacted communities and the State of Maryland.”
Del. Stephanie Smith (D), the chairwoman of the Baltimore City delegation, said backers of the track renovation package are fortunate to have Jones and Guzzone leading the charge.
“When you have leadership with that type of skin in the game and that type of visible commitment, we could not hope for more support than what we’ve been able to gain on both sides of the street,” she said.
“This is a Maryland issue; it’s not just a Baltimore issue,” Smith added.
Delegates representing Baltimore County and Baltimore City were briefed on the plan in Annapolis on Friday morning.
The proposal pumps roughly $200 million to to overhaul Pimlico and build athletic fields and a clubhouse that will be available for community use 11 months a year. And it allocates $173 million to transform Laurel Park. Attendance at Maryland tracks has sagged in part because the facilities are widely regarded as aging and unsafe.
If the General Assembly gives the green light, the Maryland Stadium Authority would oversee the renovation projects by floating 30-year bonds.
Some of the revenue streams that have been identified to repay those loans taper off and eventually sunset in 2032, creating a potential shortfall. The legislature will have to come up with a way to close that gap at the same time it’s trying to find billions to fund the recommendations put forward by the Kirwan Commission on education reform.
“The presiding officers and those interested in sponsoring and supporting the bill obviously have a strong eye on the Education Trust Fund and all you’re doing to make sure the changes you make and the improvements you make in that system are maintained,” Joseph C. Bryce, an attorney representing the Maryland Jockey Club, told the panel.
“I have a lot of faith in their creativity. And hopefully in the next few days, we’ll be able to talk fully about it.”
Bryce is just one of several dialed-in industry lobbyists who are working to pass the legislative package. But it will still encounter some critics.
In an interview, House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) faulted the plan for failing to require a financial contribution from Baltimore City.
“This is a $375 million project when we’re trying figure out how we pay for Kirwan. I don’t see evidence of Baltimore City having any real skin in the game,” she said. “How do I go back to my taxpayers… and say ‘they want you to pay for this’? The city will benefit greatly from this.”
City lawmakers rejected that claim. They pointed to school, library and infrastructure improvements that Baltimore is making in the neighborhood around Pimlico.
“There’s been a lot of investment that the city has contributed already,” said Del. Tony Bridges (D-Baltimore City), whose district includes the race track.
“The legislation is just a heavy lift altogether,” he added. “The funding piece is key in how things move forward.”