Real Emergencies

Our President has recently called into question the common sense understanding of what constitutes an emergency or crisis. Is, for example, the lack of a wall across our southern border really as disconcerting as, let’s say, the abuse of opioids? Or the fact that 1 out of 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer in her lifetime?

Unfortunately, a similar “misunderstanding,” we’ll call it, is happening in Baltimore City where a situation seems to have been elevated to crisis level at the expense – in terms of expressions of persistent outrage and concern, not to mention real money – of a much more serious, more urgent problem that is suffering from long-term neglect.

Mayor Pugh and many others who have an interest in the future of the Pimlico racetrack are pushing hard to keep the owner from favoring Laurel Park at Pimlico’s expense. To hear the Mayor talk about it , it’s a crisis of very high order, demanding state intervention. The objective of all this concern and outrage is to force the Stronach Group – owner of the Jockey Club and both of Maryland’s only two full-time thoroughbred race tracks – to do the right thing for Pimlico and for the greater community around it.

No question about it, Pimlico is important to the city, at least to a section of it, as is horse breeding and racing to Maryland. But then interest in horse racing has been declining for years and there are many other statewide and local problems that are in need of additional funding and compete for the same limited tax revenues. In a world where you can’t afford to do it all, you’ve got to set your priorities thoughtfully, compassionately and put your money where it will do the most good. In this case, do you bet on horses, literally and figuratively, or our children?

We’re not saying that the state should abandon its support of horse racing entirely, but priorities need to be set and, as a practical matter, some elements of the economy, including “the sport of kings,” may have to be left to the private sector to resolve.

Pimlico and the Preakness are a Maryland tradition and there isn’t a neighborhood in Baltimore that doesn’t need work, some much more so than others, but not at the expense of the education the city’s kids receive.

Public education in Baltimore City is currently ranked 24th among Maryland’s counties. For the record, in case you don’t know how many counties we have here in Maryland, including Baltimore City, it’s 24. The education public school children are receiving in Baltimore is ranked dead last in the state. As a matter of fact, the children of most of the city’s families are graduating without being competitive for jobs or college compared to their counterparts around the state and across the nation.

The point is, the poor quality of Baltimore City public education is a real, honest-to-goodness and huge crisis, the resolution of which is much more important than the continuation and redevelopment of Pimlico. It may be a much larger, much more profound and more difficult problem to solve, but that’s no reason not to give the real emergency of public education the priority, attention and money it deserves.

The good news is that resolving one problem might help solve the other. As you may know from reading recent articles that we’ve posted , current state law gives 7% of casino slot machine revenues to the horse racing industry. Most of that money goes to the Stronach Group, current owner of The Jockey Club, to increase thoroughbred purses and for investment in Laurel Park. Stronach likes Laurel Park over Pimlico because being close to Washington is better for business.

This 7% subsidy is a misdirection of tax revenues that should be added to the casino funds already going to public education statewide.

The legislature in Annapolis, led by the Baltimore City delegation, needs to take the 7% away from The Stronach Group (Jockey Club) and add it to casino money already going to public education. And then let private sector developers friendly to Baltimore City find a way to save Pimlico and the Preakness with little or no financial help from the city or state. Done correctly, new legislation should redirect the 7% and then some specifically to benefit Baltimore City and Prince George’s County schools, the later being ranked 23rd in the state. Both systems are in desperate need of additional funding.

The Jockey Club is no friend of the City. It’s a self-serving, couldn’t-care-less arm of The Stronach Group, a Canadian-based conglomerate whose owners – founder Frank Stronach and his daughter, Belinda Stronach – are engaged in an all-consuming, wildly contested struggle for ownership. That’s their business. Good luck to them.

Problems with Pimlico and Maryland horseracing should be resolved by the private sector. At the very least, we need to stop giving The Stronach Group what is currently over $70 million per year in casino revenues to pretty much do with what they want. That money is tax revenues that need to be spent on the city’s and state’s real emergency, poor quality public education.

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