Woodbine is located in Ontario.

Woodbine is located in Ontario.

Michael Burns

Will Ontario Slots Program Be Revisited?

Politicians are questioning a report that led to an end of slots at racetracks.

by Alex Campbell

Just days before a government panel is set to release recommendations for the future of horse racing in Ontario, the industry is receiving support from opposition politicians that believe the current Ontario government did not do its homework before ending the province's slots-at-racetracks program.

A document released Aug. 14 by Conservative members Ted Arnott and Randy Pettapiece shows the current Liberal government believes only 5,800 jobs would be lost as a result of the slots shutdown and subsequent funding loss to the horse racing industry. In 2004 the Ontario Liberals said the Ontario horse racing industry "preserved and enhanced" more than 60,000 jobs and provided more $1.1 billion to the province's agricultural sector in the provincial budget.

"To the extent that they studied the economic impact, it was superficial and flawed in many respects," Arnott said in a statement. "Their numbers are highly questionable and won't hold up under scrutiny. It looks like it was done on the back of a napkin."

The document dated March 14, two days after the province decided to cancel the agreement with racetracks, outlined the economic impact of ending the slots-at-racetracks program to government cabinet ministers. Along with the job-loss figures, the document stated that 11 of the province's 17 racetracks would close, but that overall employment in the province would increase by at least 5,700 jobs.

"The report dramatically understates the potential job losses, completely overlooking the true economic spin-offs the equine industry creates throughout rural Ontario," Arnott said.

Another Conservative member, Lisa MacLeod, is set to introduce legislation this fall that will take the matter to the province's Auditor General.

"I think this could be a whitewash, that's why I'm calling in the Auditor General through a private member's motion this September to come in, look at the numbers, look at the impact on the horse racing industry, and see (whether) Ontarians really want casinos at their downtown locations," she told Sun News Network.

New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath and fellow New Democrat member Taras Natyshak have also spoken out against the government's decision, going as far to say the government altered facts to back up its decision to cancel the lucrative slots program.

"The long-term repercussions of the short-sighted Liberal decision to withdraw (slots) from Ontario racetracks are already being felt," Horwath and Natyshak said in a joint statement issued Aug. 17. "The economic impact report that has recently been released is one more damning piece of the puzzle.

"It's clear now that this Liberal government chose not only to ignore the consequences of its decision, but chose to draft a report that distorts the economic impact in an attempt to justify its actions."

Support for the Ontario horse racing industry also exists within the Liberal government. According to the Peterborough Examiner, Liberal member Jeff Leal submitted a proposal to the government panel Aug. 16 calling for slots facilities to remain in eight to 10 racetracks around the province in a modified version of the existing program.

"All of these dollars stay locally, and it creates jobs for people," Leal said. "It's not a subsidy, but it's an investment."

The industry's message appears to be getting through to the general public based on the results of a recent poll. According to results obtained by Abacus Data, a full-service strategic research firm based in Ottawa, only 17% of Ontarians are in support of the cancellation of the slots-at-racetracks program, while 41% oppose the decision.

The poll was conducted for Racing Future, which has a website in support of the Ontario horse racing industry. But despite all of the recent support for horse racing in Ontario, the last word rests with the provincial government, which continues to stand by its decision to cancel the program.

"The issue is not whether we bring an end to a subsidy for horse racing in Ontario," Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said. "My choice is to put any available money into schools."

The three-member government panel, tasked with deciding how best to allocate $50 million in transitional funding the province will provide the industry over the next three years, will submit its recommendations to the government later in the week of Aug. 19.