CHRB Funding Pulled by Senate Committee

The California Horse Racing Board drew more political heat May 9 when a state Senate budget sub-committee pulled the regulatory agency's $10.8 million funding for the 2007-08 fiscal year.

The action seems mostly related to the CHRB's refusal of Bay Meadows' request to waive a commission mandate requiring installation of an all-weather racing surface by the end of the year. Sen. Leland Yee, whose district includes Bay Meadows, made the request formally to Sen. Michael J. Machado, chairman of the Budget and Fiscal Review Sub-Committee.

During the one-minute hearing, Machado told Ingrid Fermin, executive director of the the CHRB: "The Senate and the Senate leadership is very concerned about the actions and attitudes of the horse racing board. Today, I’m recommending eliminating the complete budget for the board. And with that, I hope this action will motivate people on the board to open up the communication lines with the Senate to resolve outstanding issues."

With the 73-year-old Bay Meadows set to close in November following the March 22 decision, Yee has been harshly critical of the CHRB, citing the loss of more than 500 jobs and tax revenue it would cause. A week after the Bay Meadows vote, Yee called for the resignation of Richard Shapiro, chairman of the seven-member board, for engineering the vote against the waiver.

The board has repeatedly cited the need to improve the safety for horses and jockeys for the synthetic track requirement. During the recently concluded Bay Meadows meet, 25 horses were euthanized as a result of training or racing injuries, according to a CHRB report.

Bay Meadows Land Co., which has already built on much of the track property, has city general plan approval to develop the remaining 83.5 acres for retail use, office buildings, and housing, which is expected by 2010. The owner has continued to operate the racetrack, and indicated it is willing to continue to do so while working for changes in state law that would allow alternative gaming. However, it has refused to make the $10-million investment in a new track surface.

Adam Keigwin, spokesman for Yee, insisted the Bay Meadows closure is not the sole issue. He said the commission has been responsible for lax investigation, Freedom of Information Act violations, poor staff morale resulting in numerous resignations, and even requests for taxpayer-funded limousine use. He said commissioners have criticized legislators and others in state government, including the governor's office, while losing sight of its regulatory role.

"We have gone to the board numerous times," Keigwin said. "The CHRB has completely neglected to resolve any of these problems."

Keigwin said zero funding ensures that the full Senate will deliberate CHRB operations during "May revisions" of the governor’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

"At the end of the day they will have to hash it out," he said. "They will have to come to some agreement. Someone has to oversee horse racing in the state. It is not our intention to not have it exist. Senator Yee is not going to do something that hurts horse racing."

That process won’t alter the CHRB's decision that results in closing Bay Meadows, Keigwin said, "although we will urge them to reconsider."

Fermin, contacted May 10, said the legislature's issues are "not really at the staff level. Anything the legislature will ask of us we will comply with. We want to resolve this as quickly as possible."

During the committee hearing, she told Machado: "We will work with everybody and anybody in any we can."

Machado shot back: "You’ve had a long time to work. We hope that you’ll do it post haste."

Speaking by phone, Shapiro said: "I certainly welcome the opportunity to meet with Senator Yee and any and all the other legislators to show them we are operating efficiently and appropriately…and to ensure that any other concerns will be alleviated."

He said the Bay Meadows situation would be on the May 22 board agenda as a discussion item.

Shapiro admitted "with some regret" statements he made during a CHRB meeting Oct. 26, 2006, though he said he did not mean to be critical of the legislature. During the meeting, he and other commissioners complained about political pressure they felt in deciding a controversy over whether a "swing week" of calendar racing dates should go to Hollywood Park or Santa Anita Park.

"I resent over the last few weeks I have heard from the president of the Senate, the Assembly leaders, various senators, even spoken to the Governor's Office because I was initially challenged that this isn't our role," he said according to a transcript of the meeting. "And I looked and I went to the rule book and I went to the law book and it was very clear, this is our role. And it's unfortunate that people feel that by using lobbyists and bringing political pressure on us that they are going to influence our decisions in this matter."

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