BOSTON – This time they got it done with time to spare, but only a little.
After its inaction twice in recent years briefly rendered horse racing and simulcast wagering illegal, the Legislature on Monday sent Gov. Charlie Baker a bill that would extend the authorization for those activities until July 1. Without action, simulcasting would have come to a halt Wednesday night.
The bill (S 2308) now waiting for Baker's signature also includes language that would allow Suffolk Downs to hold onto its simulcasting license for the duration of the extension, despite the fact that the racetrack ran its final live horse race in June and has no plans to hold live races in the future.
Lawmakers missed each of the last two deadlines to extend the authorization for the sport of kings and simulcasting, causing the cancelation of races in 2018 and the loss of business at tracks. Betting on simulcast races currently takes place at Suffolk Downs and centers in Raynham and in Plainville at the Plainridge Park Casino, where patrons can also wager on live harness horse racing between April and November.
"Really, from my perspective, this should be one of those drama free excercises in the Legislature," said Sen. Paul Feeney, a Foxborough Democrat. "We're talking about extending racing and simulcasting to keep people employed, but with the understanding that we hope to have a comprehensive bill that addresses all of these issues before the end of the session."
Over the years, lawmakers have extended the racing and simulcasting laws for a year at a time, often waiting until just before or after the deadline to pass extensions. The latest extension comes while a small cadre of lawmakers works to draft a piece of legislation that could restructure how the state regulates horse racing and simulcasting.
Feeney said he's been working on a bill with Rep. Tackey Chan - the two co-chairs of the Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure - that would enable the Legislature to "stop this dance" of extending licenses every few months.
The bill, he said, would create a system for licensure and oversight of racing and simulcasting that makes sense in the current marketplace and for the future. He noted specifically that Chip Tuttle of Suffolk Downs has expressed his desire to bring thoroughbred racing back to Massachusetts at a facility other than the East Boston track. One idea is to potentially create a racing board under the Gaming Commission.
Feeney said the bill is 80 percent done, but is "not ready for prime time" just yet.
For years, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission has been asking lawmakers to give serious consideration to giving it broader powers to regulate the racing industry and put an end to the one-year extensions. But in a letter to the Legislature last month, the commission said it recognizes "that a consensus has not yet been achieved on the future of racing in the Commonwealth."
Though the House and Senate ultimately struck a deal on the extension Monday, it was not without some level of disagreement.
The House last week passed a bill that would have pushed the sunset date for racing and simulcasting to Dec. 1, 2020. The Senate, however, adopted an amendment at its Monday morning session that would have only extended simulcasting authority until June 12.
Feeney said that date was chosen to give him and Chan enough time to workshop their bill with stakeholders and schedule a debate in the Legislature without risking the racing bill getting lost in the frenzy of the end of session.
By late afternoon, the two sides had agreed to an extension until July 1.