By Stew Slater
Former Perth-Wellington MPP John Wilkinson of Stratford is among three former provincial cabinet ministers — one Liberal, one Conservative, one New Democrat — named Thursday, June 7 to a panel looking into the ruling McGuinty government’s planned elimination of the Slots at Racetracks program.
“We are happy to have the opportunity to work alongside the (horse racing) industry and provide them with our support as they develop a vision for their future,” stated a message from the panel, included as part of a news release from the government. “We look forward to hearing from stakeholders on their needs and priorities, so that decisions can be made on how to best assist the industry during this time of transition toward self-sustainability.”
Also named to the panel, along with former Revenue and Environment Minister Wilkinson, were former Conservative Education and Natural Resources Minister John Snobelen and former New Democrat Agriculture Minister Elmer Buchanan.
Earlier this year, the McGuinty Liberals announced they will eliminate a program which sees the operators of the harness racing venues and the provincial government share revenue from any of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming agency’s slot machines which are located at the racetracks. The Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association (OHRIA) has vocally opposed the move, saying it will force the closure of small racetracks across the province, and push thousands of horses and industry employees into an uncertain future.
An OHRIA news release, sent out immediately after the government’s announcement on Thursday, described the creation of the new panel as “the result of weeks of effort by OHRIA to identify the appropriate point person or persons in government with whom it can engage in these much needed discussions.”
Association President Sue Leslie said, “we take this as an indication that the government is recognizing the value that our industry brings to Ontario’s agricultural economy and to the public in general.” Leslie cited a government commitment of up to $50 million in “transition funding” over three years, however, and added, “it is not transitional funding that is needed but a long-term funding plan that will insure a vibrant industry in the future.
“This is a long awaited step but there are many more steps ahead.”
Last week’s government news release said the new panel will consult with industry stakeholders with an aim to, among other things, “provide recommendations to the government on how to allocate transition funding” and “advise on the modernization of other industry revenue sources to assist the industry in becoming more self-sufficient.”
“Our government understands that ending the Slots at Racetracks program and responding to market demands poses a challenge for everyone involved in the horse racing industry,” said Finance Minister Dwight Duncan in the news release. “That’s why we are committed to helping the industry move toward greater self-sufficiency without government support.”
Meanwhile, current Perth-Wellington MPP Randy Pettapiece sent off what he described as a “strongly worded letter” to Premier McGuinty on June 7, taking the Liberals to task for their decision to tear up the Slots at Racetracks deal.
“Your government’s decision will cause devastating ripple effects far beyond the horse racing industry alone, and will damage our regional economy,” Pettapiece wrote in the letter, a copy of which was provided to the media.
Speaking to the Journal Argus on Thursday afternoon — while he was in town to assist with the official opening of Action Health Care’s new location on Queen Street East — Pettapiece suggested the Slots at Racetracks decision is part of a trend with the ruling Liberals.
“People are really seeing a split between country and city when it comes to the way they’re doing things,” Pettapiece said in the interview. “These are programs that affect people’s lives, and it seems to be directed at the country all the time. And there’s a sense of unfairness among the people that I talk to in Perth-Wellington.”