Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
A group of racehorse owners sued the state Friday to block legislative efforts to shut down the Texas Racing Commission — and with it, the state’s racetracks.
The Texas Horsemen’s Partnership contends lawmakers are relying on an unconstitutional provision in the state budget, holding the Racing Commission’s funding in check to force that state agency to repeal rules that allow “historic racing” — a new form of betting — at those tracks.
Members of the state’s Legislative Budget Board have given the commission until Feb. 29 to repeal the rule, saying they won’t extend the agency’s funding if the commissioners keep the rule in place. Without funding, the agency can’t maintain regulation of tracks, and without that regulation in place, the tracks aren’t allowed to operate.
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“This lawsuit is a misplaced attempt to force my office into making a payment against the will of the Legislature,” said state Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who was named in the lawsuit since his office handles the state's finances. “I am interested in a long-term solution to this issue; however, wasting taxpayer dollars by taking advantage of the overburdened court system is not the answer.”
Historical racing allows people to bet on old races with identifying information — horses, jockeys, tracks, dates and so on — stripped away. Some versions resemble slot machines. The commission approved rules that would allow the games in 2014, but that was stalled when courts ruled it would open a new form of gaming not approved by the Legislature.
During their 2015 session, legislative budget writers conditioned the Racing Commission’s continued funding on approval from the 10-member Legislative Budget Board. Last summer, that board told racing commissioners to take the rule off the books and threatened to defund the agency — and close the tracks — if it didn’t. That deadline has been extended twice, and racehorse owners in the state are now suing to prevent the state from shutting things down.
"We are reviewing the lawsuit, but the facts haven't changed. The commission never had the authority to take this action," said Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, a member of the budget board. "If we do not hold them accountable, we are no better than Washington, D.C., where agencies just make up laws, ignore the Constitution and circumvent the people's elected representatives."
No track in Texas offers historical racing, but the promoters of it want the rule to remain on books because it gives them grounds to pursue the fight over this form of gaming into the appeals courts. If the state takes the rule off the books, those continued lawsuits evaporate.