State Sen. Dan Lauwers felt like he needed to do something to remind people about the Michigan historical horse racing bill.
The bill was tie-barred to his advance deposit wagering bill in 2019. He thought the two pieces of legislation could revive Michigan’s horse racing industry.
The pair easily passed in the Senate along with the rest of the package of gaming bills meant to bring Michigan gaming into the 21st century.
But with the historical horse racing (HHR) bill facing opposition from the casino industry, he agreed to break the tie bar so that the ADW bill could pass. In return, he got a promise for the HHR bill to get its turn this year.
With the end of the session nearing and the historical horse racing bill sitting inactive in the House all year, Lauwers moved to tie bar it to the multistate poker bill last month.
While it might look like a failed attempt, Lauwers got what he wanted. There’s a renewed effort to pass the historical horse racing bill.
Committee move gets commitments to help
When legislation to allow for multi-state online poker pools went through the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee on which he is a member, Lauwers saw an opportunity. By tie-barring bills together, one can’t pass into law without the other.
His thought process was that the casinos that were opposing the S 661 wanted the online poker legislation. Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., author of the online poker fix, rushed to the committee to ask him not to intertwine the bills’ fates.
Hertel told Lauwers didn’t have a high enough interest in the multi-state pooling bill to carry HHR to passage.
So Lauwers agreed not to tie-bar the bills. In exchange, Hertel pledged to work with the administration to figure out what is needed to pass S 661. Hertel was instrumental in negotiating the compromise between the administration and casinos last year on online casino and sports betting.
“When I made the move to tie-bar this bill to the Hertel bill for interstate poker, it reignited the discussion on when we were going to get around to this bill that was left behind last year,” Lauwers said. “I think Sen. Hertel has a pretty good method of finding those compromises to get enough support to get something like this done.”
Why senator wants to boost Michigan horse racing
Sen. Jim Ananich, the sponsor of S 661, has a company looking to revive Sports Creek Raceway in his district if it can offer historical horse racing.
Lauwers got involved because there are so many businesses in the state that are part of the greater horse racing industry. In Lauwers’ district, there is a company that provides hay and straw to racetracks. His daughter is a large-animal vet.
“We’re losing our horse racing businesses and a lot of jobs and economic activity,” Lauwers said.
“Horse racing is an entire industry, a huge economic engine. It breaks my heart when I see our state offer economic or financial incentives to bring in new businesses when we have this once vibrant business withering away simply because we won’t pass policies to catch it up to the 21st century.”
Getting MI historical horse racing to finish line
Historical horse racing machines use old horse racing results to simulate slot machine play. Casinos see it as a competing slot machine product.
“I think the primary issue we have to overcome is the hold the casino industry has on the administration right now,” Lauwers said.
“The casino people say they are totally opposed to it and they’re pressing hard on the administration not to allow it.”
Lauwers doesn’t understand why Michigan casinos are lobbying so strongly against historical horse racing. After all, two racetracks don’t pose much of a threat. He looks at it as a matter of equality to give horse racing ADW and HHR after the state gave casinos and tribes online gambling and sports betting.
Lauwers said he would welcome Michigan casinos and tribes participating in HHR by opening their own racetracks. He pointed out that some of the same owners of gaming venues in Michigan have horse tracks in other states.
For a bill that hasn’t gotten so much as a side glance all session, the HHR bill has a lot going for it heading into the lame-duck session. Lawmakers are familiar with it and generally in support — the Senate voted overwhelmingly (376-38) in favor of the bill last year.
Ananich, the Senate Minority Leader, and Hertel are close legislative allies of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Lauwers hopes they can help get administrative support for the bill to pass in December.