Racing Commission Future Still Unclear

Unless lawmakers come up with a deal soon to keep it funded, the Texas Racing Commission is prepared to close down tomorrow. That means all Texas racetracks will be forced to close as well.

State Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson R-Flower Mound, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick discussed the Senate's base budget plan at a Jan. 27, 2015, news conference.

Waiting for the Legislative Budget Board to decide whether to continue funding it, the Texas Racing Commission said Monday evening it is prepared to close tomorrow if lawmakers don't reach a deal to keep it operating by midnight.

The future of the commission, which regulates dog and horse racing in the state, is still unclear after members of the Legislative Budget Board failed to reach an agreement before Monday evening, commission spokesman Robert Elrod said.

"The House has a proposal, the Senate has a proposal, but they don't match," Elrod said. "If it's midnight and we haven't heard anything, then I believe we'll be closed tomorrow ... we're preparing to be closed, but we're also ready to come in. "

Although the commission’s $7.7 million annual budget comes from licensing and fees paid by the racetracks, legislators still must appropriate that money. Because the LBB hasn’t yet granted the commission any funds, the agency is prepared to close, which would require racetracks to close as well.

Republican senators threatened to defund the agency in February, saying the commission overstepped its authority by allowing historical racing — gambling on electronic simulations of past races with identifying information removed. The commission approved historical racing a year ago, but no tracks have yet offered it to gamblers. 

Last week, the commission affirmed its decision to allow historical racing in the state.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sparked a flurry of erroneous reports that the deal was done late Monday afternoon when he announced a scheme giving the commission three more months of funding, but not the full $15.4 million two-year budget the agency had requested. However, that decision only represented the Senate side of the talks, said Alejandro Garcia, a spokesman for Patrick.

“We have been looking for a way to avoid a shutdown,” state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said in a news release 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."

House Appropriations Chair John Otto advocated for approving the commission's entire funding request.

"I am approving on behalf of the House the TRC request to expend the funds," he wrote in a letter to Nelson on Monday. "While there may be legitimate concerns over the Racing Commission's recent actions regarding the issue of historic racing, I believe it is imperative that this industry remain fully regulated, and that we do not risk maintaining the state's full authority over this industry by withholding certain administrative funds."