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Race track supporters trying to salvage bill

BISMARCK -- A bill that horse racing officials say must pass to ensure North Dakota's two race tracks will operate beyond this year has had a perilous journey through the session but got new life breathed into it on Wednesday.

Sen. Tom Fischer, R-Fargo, said Wednesday he'll take another look at the bill, which he previously planned to carry to the Senate with a do-not-pass recommendation.

House Bill 1551 tinkers with--and supporters say improves--the state's pari-mutuel betting tax formula, a system that's been in place for 20 years to support horse racing in the state.

The Racing Commission is assigned most of the pari-mutuel tax revenue and uses it to subsidize the Fargo and Belcourt race tracks' annual summer seasons, pay horse breeders premiums for raising winning steeds, and to offer purses at the two tracks.

A main feature of HB 1551 is lowering the pari-mutuel tax rate on account betting during the first several months of each new biennium. Account betting is the term for high-volume wagering, often done by professional bettors.

Currently, the tax rate on account wagering is 3.5 percent at the beginning of the state's biennium and stays at that rate until the total of all horse racing wagers in the state tops $11 million. Then it drops to a quarter of 1 percent. Racing commissioners say that during the time it takes the state to reach the $11 million "handle," most large-volume bettors avoid betting in the state.

Bill supporters say that if the $11 million threshold is repealed, the state would more than make up for the amount of money theoretically lost with a lower tax because large-volume bettors won't avoid betting here. That extra revenue, plus a few other changes the bill makes in the formula will bring in more money and ensure the commission's dwindling funds last longer and support more racing, they say.

Racing commissioners and the general manager of the Fargo horse track, Heather Benson, panicked this week when they found HB 1551 was going to the Senate with a do-not-pass recommendation from the Senate Appropriations Committee. Some senators said that's because of a rocky relationship the commission had with horse breeders and legislators last year.

Racing Commission Chairman Pat Weir of Medora and Racing Commissioner Winston Satran of Bismarck, both of whom came on the commission in recent months and have been mending fences, hustled to the Capitol to try to sway senators, including Fischer and Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem, to support the bill.

"He (Fischer) was most gracious. He said he's going to take another look at it," Weir said Wednesday.

In a brief interview Fischer said Wednesday that the bill will "probably" be re-referred to the Appropriations Committee for another vote.

"We're trying to work out the differences," he said.