The General Assembly's budget chairmen have blocked the release of nearly $5 million in state aid to the racing industry in an apparent effort to bring pressure on Maryland track owners to fix their facilities.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, both Baltimore Democrats, wrote the state budget secretary this week asking him not to release the money, which was approved last year with the condition that track owners make improvements.
The budget committees "have concerns that the horse racing industry has not made satisfactory efforts to improve facilities, management and promotional activities," the letter to Budget Secretary Frederick W. Puddester states.
In an interview yesterday, Rawlings said the two panels have not been given any information to show that the track owners have made progress. "The criterion was that there ought to be substantial progress made before we release this money," he said.
Rawlings is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, while Hoffman heads the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. She did not return phone calls yesterday.
Their action appeared to be aimed at the track owners -- particularly Joseph A. De Francis, who holds the controlling interest in Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park -- though the horse owners would appear to be most immediately affected.
"If this action is not reconsidered and rescinded, the purses on a daily basis would have to be reduced $35,000 a day," said Wayne W. Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
The money is the second installment of nearly $10 million approved by the legislature last year to help increase purses at Maryland tracks. Release of the money was contingent on Gov. Parris N. Glendening's approval of the tracks' plans for improvements.
Puddester said yesterday he did not know what Rawlings' and Hoffman's objections were.
"The track submitted the plan, the governor reviewed it with the racing commission, and the plan was approved," Puddester said. "Obviously, we want to work with the legislature to understand what their concerns are."
Representatives of the racetracks did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The letter comes as lawmakers are considering legislation at the request of the track owners that would use state tax and lottery money to help finance improvements at Pimlico, Laurel Park, Rosecroft Raceway and at off-track betting parlors.
The bill would set up a complicated arrangement in which a quasi-public agency would sell millions of dollars in bonds to pay for the improvements.
While much of the money to pay off the bonds would come from bettors, some would be taken from an account funded by the state's racing tax. Other state tax and lottery revenues would be used to replenish that account.