By Alex Campbell
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced Oct. 15 that he will be stepping down as leader of the province and will also prorogue the government until a new leader for the Liberal party can be named.
The prorogation — discontinuation of a legislative session — of the government has significant implications for the province's horse racing industry, which could have potentially seen slot machines kept at certain tracks if a private members' bill forcing referendums before new casinos could be built in municipalities was passed into law.
Monte McNaughton, the Conservative member who introduced the bill to Parliament earlier this spring, confirmed that the decision to prorogue the government means the bill will not go into law during this session.
"Essentially, the bill dies on the order paper because McGuinty decided to end this session," he said. "We are going to continue to fight for referendums before any new casino can be built in the province, but unfortunately, McGuinty ended the session and it killed my bill."
The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. introduced a new modernization strategy earlier this year that calls for the end of the slots-at-racetracks program in March 2013. After that date slots parlors at most of the province's 17 racetracks will be relocated to facilities in 29 "gaming zones" throughout the province.
The private members' bill could have slowed down the implementation of the plan, but now, with government legislation suspended for the foreseeable future, the OLG can continue to implement its plan, seemingly with no opposition and without the horse racing industry included.
"That's the issue with McGuinty proroguing," McNaughton said. "There's no oversight and there's no accountability or transparency now. I feel we're going into a dark time period where the Liberals are going to be controlling the agenda and making day-to-day decisions without average Ontarians knowing what's going on. They're going to have free reign without any accountability."
The focus of the province's horse racing industry now turns to a transitional panel commissioned by the Ontario government that been working over the past few months to develop a plan for the industry going forward.
"We are looking into prorogue to see where it takes us, but naturally, the industry is very focused on what the recommendations of the panel are going to be and hopefully they can be supported by OHRIA," said Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association president Sue Leslie.
Panel member John Snobelen confirmed that the final report is now in the hands of government. Snobelen noted in a radio interview that despite prorogation, the government would still be able to implement its recommendations without legislation.
"There's nothing in our recommendations that would require the house to pass a bill," he said. "The government is still in a position to act on the file, and every indication I've had is that they still intend to act on the file."
Leslie is hopeful the recommendations put forth by the panel will be positive for the industry, but she emphasized that support from the OLG is necessary going forward.
"I think the panel will do their best to find a solution, but the reality is the government must agree to racing being part of the OLG modernization plan," Leslie said. "If the panel succeeds in making that happen, then I think we have a chance to work this out."
Snobelen commended the industry's willingness to engage in a partnership with the province throughout the process and is hopeful the recommendations the panel has provided to the government will benefit all parties.
"We found a real willing partnership at a sophisticated level inside of the racing industry, and there's every reason to move forward with this," Snobelen said. "The industry has been very receptive to looking at the economic realities of the province and they've been extraordinarily cooperative. That gives me hope going forward."
Like Snobelen, Leslie also is hopeful and believes the panel does understand the financial hurdles that need to be cleared for the industry to be successful into the future.
"I believe they understand that the industry cannot survive on pari-mutuel wagering alone," she said. "I believe they will try to find a financial solution that satisfies both the government and the industry if that's possible. I am very encouraged of their intentions."
But despite being encouraged about what the panel may have recommended to the government, Leslie also warned that the industry landscape won't be what it was when the slots-at-racetracks program was in place.
"I don't believe that it is going to be back to business as usual without changes," she said. "There will be shrinkage and pain and adjustments needed by the industry. OHRIA has tried to maintain things as much as possible but the sad fact is I don't believe it will be back to status quo."
The transitional panel's final report likely will be released to the public within the next three weeks.