Racing Commission chair quits amid disagreement with Gov. Greg Abbott

A disagreement with Gov. Greg Abbott over a new form of gambling ended with the Texas Racing Commission’s chairman abandoning his leadership post.

Abbott accepted the request of former Chairman Robert Schmidt late Monday, 10 days after the physician from Fort Worth submitted a letter resigning as chairman. Schmidt will remain on as a commissioner.

The governor had wanted Schmidt to schedule a vote of the commission next Tuesday to repeal a previously approved rule to allow historical racing at the state’s race tracks. (The emerging form of gambling allows bettors to wager electronically on horse races that have already been run but have been stripped of all identifying marks.)

But Schmidt, who sees historical racing as a way to buoy the struggling racing business in Texas, said he couldn’t comply.

“They felt strongly about a direction, and I felt differently,” he said.

Since he serves the governor, Schmidt said he felt it was appropriate to give up the chairmanship. Schmidt told the American-Statesman that discussions with the governor’s staff were “cordial and frank.”

The division between Schmidt and Abbott is the latest in a years-long dispute over historical racing.

When the commission voted to allow historical racing in 2014, conservative state leaders, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, voiced their total opposition. They said the game, which is sometimes referred to as instant racing, amounts to expanded gambling and can only be allowed in Texas if two-thirds of the Legislature approves it. Voters need to sign off too, they say.

In June, the commissioners took a step toward repealing the rule, but a few months later, in August, they snubbed the GOP leadership and voted to keep it in place. The 4-3 vote angered Patrick so much that he put into place an action to stop funding the agency. Abbott responded the following month by approving an emergency appropriation to keep the commission open and, hence allow the tracks to stay operational.

Meanwhile, the matter has moved through the state court system, as members of the racing community appealed a lower court’s ruling that said the agency didn’t have the right to approve historical racing.

As chair of the racing commission, Schmidt will be replaced by Rolando Pablos, who the governor appointed to the commission last month. Pablos of El Paso served as chairman of the racing commission from 2008 to 2011 and also worked as a commissioner on the Public Utility Commission.

Marsha Rountree, executive director of the Texas Horsemen’s Partnership, said this week that she and members of her organization welcome the new commission members and “look forward to educating them” about historical racing.

Patrick’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Horsemen have said the historical racing games, which are played on terminals that resemble slot machines, amount to an extension of legal pari-mutuel gaming. Historical racing represents a lifeline for an industry that is struggling to stay afloat in the face of competition from neighboring states that supplement purses with casino gambling, horse industry officials said.

Even with Schmidt out as chairman, the commission could still refuse repeal the rule allowing the new form of gambling. At next week’s meeting, the commission could vote to repeal rule related to historical racing, or it could decide to republish rules to allow more time to consider the matter. It could come up again as early as February. The commission also could do nothing, which would allow the rules to stay in place as the case works its way through the legal system.

Schmidt summed up the situation by saying: “I don’t think it is dead.”

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