Pennsylvania Derby

To Honor and Serve, right, with jockey Jose Lezcano aboard, heads to the finish line during the running of the Pennsylvania Derby horse race at Parx Racing, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011, in Bensalem, Pa. (Alex Brandon / AP Photo)

Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to tackle college debt in this year’s budget hinges on a massive new scholarship program that could provide aid to roughly thousands of students attending the 14 state-owned universities.

But to fund it, Wolf wants to touch a political hot potato — the commonwealth’s long-standing, and long-debated, subsidy program for the horse-racing industry.

By raiding the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Trust, Wolf wants to earmark $204 million annually for the Nellie Bly Tuition Program.

The details are fuzzy, but the Wolf administration says this new initiative would grant money to students attending any of the schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. The dollars would go to students who pledge to stay in the state after graduation — an incentive, administration officials say, that would keep skilled workers in the commonwealth..

Students receiving the scholarships would have to remain in Pennsylvania for as long as they used the scholarships to attend a state school, like Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Bloombsurg University. If a student leaves before then, the scholarship converts into a loan the student must pay back to the state.

There are no eligibility requirements yet for this newly-proposed scholarship program, but Wolf administration officials say they want the initiative to target students from low- and middle-income families. The dollars granted through the Nellie Bly Tuition Program would cover any costs — tuition, books, living expenses, etc. — that a student can’t meet with Pell Grants or other forms of assistance.

An estimated 25,000 students would receive money from the tuition program each year, officials said.

But to get those funds, Wolf will have to take on an industry that says it’s fighting for survival.

The Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, which represents owners, trainers, drivers, and breeders, criticized the proposal. Executive Director Pete Peterson said the proposal would “result in the end of horseracing in Pennsylvania by eviscerating the primary funding source for the purses and breeder incentives that serve as the lifeblood of the industry.”

The coalition sent out a news release with statements from trainers, veterinarians, owners and others who all criticized the move.

“I cannot believe that our Governor would turn his back on the horse breeding and racing industry,” said Pat Chapman, owner of 2004 Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones. “This would be absolutely devastating to so many of us in the horse business.”

The Wolf administration defended the change, saying it would help students avoid crushing debt.

“Let’s bet on our kids instead of bankrolling race horse owners and ensure the viability of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education,” Wolf’s prepared budget remarks read.

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