The Ontario Liberal government alienated rural Ontarians last March when it announced the cancellation of the OLG slots at racetrack revenue sharing program. Ontario racetracks and horseracing industry advocates argue the lost slots revenue threatens the future of their industry, and the government never consulted their representatives when it cancelled the program. Liberal Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin has added to the controversy by suggesting the government “dropped the ball” by cancelling the slots program.
As Agriculture Minister, McMeekin’s primary job is to help build an economically viable rural Ontario which includes supporting vibrant industries such as horseracing. Racetracks and the industry at large have been losing revenue over the last decade in part due to the increasing popularity of online casinos. As a result, the government reached an agreement with racetracks in the year 2000 to install slots onsite as part of a coordinated effort to bring Ontarians and out of province tourists back to the racetracks. The OLG and the racetracks would share the revenues made by the slots, and Ontario municipalities were also received benefits from the arrangement.
However, the OLG gaming modernization strategy shifts the focus of gambling away from the racetracks and into casinos that will be developed in major cities. Part of the new strategy cancels the slots revenue sharing program as of March 31, and the horseracing industry has been fighting with Queen’s Park ever since the announcement was made last March. Horse breeders and racetrack representative say they weren’t consulted by the Liberals about the cancellation ahead of time, and suggest the industry will struggle to survive as land-based casinos take revenue away – similarly to online casinos.
McMeekin, whose riding is located just outside of Hamilton near the Flamboro Downs racetrack, admitted this week that the government made a mistake by rushing the cancellation of the program. Opposition MPPs immediately pounced on McMeekin and the entire Liberal party for the remarks. PC MPP Randy Pettapiece led the charge, and criticized McMeekin and the Liberals for denying so long what the rest of the province was aware of months ago.
“Finally, someone in the Liberal cabinet has stated the obvious. They dropped the ball. But that’s an understatement. And I wonder why the minister didn’t speak up when he had the chance.”
With Kathleen Wynne replacing Dalton McGuinty as Premier, the horseracing industry may have a lifeline with the new leader. Wynne has promised to review the slot revenue sharing program as one of her first acts as Premier, and will also serve as Ontario’s Agriculture Minister – displacing McMeekin from the position. It has been speculated Wynne was opposed to the actions of McGuinty and McMeekin, and is taking steps to rectify their mistakes.