FREDERICTON – Critics are questioning why the provincial government has committed $1 million in annual funding to the harness racing industry amid cuts to school librarians and teacher assistants.

The Liberals introduced legislation yesterday guaranteeing Harness Racing New Brunswick will receive the funding until it is able to put the 150 video lottery terminals it was allocated by government last year into operation.

Opposition leader David Alward said the legislation shows the Liberals’ priorities are off-base. Alward pointed to education cuts and the struggling lobster industries as areas where the Liberals have said they’re limited by the economic crisis.

“If we look at decisions of this government, there’s a long list of misguided priorities,” he said. But Finance Minister Victor Boudreau defended the decision, saying Harness Racing New Brunswick is still establishing itself and isn’t ready to place all of its VLTs at racetracks.

It’s expected the organization will receive roughly $1.2 million in revenue from the VLTs once they are all operating. Until then, the government will cover the shortfall in revenue.

Boudreau said he doesn’t know how long it will take for the 150 VLTs to be operational.

As the VLTs are gradually placed at racetracks, any revenue from the machines will be deducted from the government funding, said Boudreau.

“It’s preserving an industry; it’s preserving jobs in rural New Brunswick,” said Boudreau. “Harness Racing New Brunswick does serve a purpose; many jobs are related to that industry.”

Boudreau insisted the announcement didn’t include any new money as the organization would have received roughly the same amount of revenue from the VLTs.

However, he acknowledged VLT revenue is raised by individuals choosing to gamble and not taxpayers.

“For government, if those machines are…sitting in a warehouse somewhere, they’re not generating money for anybody,” he said. Atlantic Lottery Corporation will be able to use the 150 machines elsewhere until the harness organization is ready for them, Boudreau added.

Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies questioned why the province is subsidizing gambling.

“I suspect that there are any many taxpayers in New Brunswick who would be unhappy seeing their money going to subsidize the expansion of gambling in New Brunswick,” he said.