Leaders of the state Senate announced today they consider off-track betting a dead issue for the 1991 legislative session, a decision that supporters of Maryland's horse racing industry say could deal a financial setback to the industry.
Saying the decision was based upon a weak economy and questions about harness track racing czar Mark R. Vogel's ability to keep his tracks separate from his legal and financial problems, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the 5-year-old debate on off-track betting will be shelved for at least a year.
"1991 is not the year for the issue to be discussed and debated," said Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.
Miller said the decision was made at an early-morning meeting of Senate leaders at which he found "absolutely little or no support" for OTB.
Although a summer study panel and Gov. William Donald Schaefer have indicated they would back simulcast wagering if the General Assembly supported it, OTB legislation was expected to encounter opposition from some lawmakers this year. Still, Miller's announcement caught some friends of the racing industry by surprise.
"It's asinine," said Del. Paul E. Weisengoff, D-City, who predicted that House interest in OTB could keep the issue alive.
Weisengoff said the racing industry -- and particularly harness tracks -- need to expand wagering bases, and the announcement by the Senate leadership could make financial matters worse for track and horse owners.
Weisengoff brushed aside Senate leaders' claims that they are opposing OTB this year because it poses a potential threat to the state lottery games. He suggested that antagonism toward the financially strapped Vogel, owner of Rosecroft Raceway and Delmarva Downs, is the source of Miller's announcement.
"If we find there's a need for OTB without helping Mark Vogel, maybe we'll go ahead," Weisengoff said.
Vogel, once a prominent Washington-area developer, is beset by money problems. He recently pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in Virginia and received what amounted to probation before judgment.
He has since filed for personal bankruptcy and is looking to sell partial ownership of his tracks to raise money. After Vogel was arrested last Sept. 13 and fell behind on paying horsemen and other creditors, the Maryland Racing Commission took over day-to-day operation of his tracks.
Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's, who chairs the Finance Committee that handles racing bills, said several factors led to today's decision, including concerns that off-track betting could cut into revenues generated by the state's lottery.
He also said fears that the Pennsylvania and Virginia racing industries planned to build off-track betting parlors near the Maryland state line and siphon off revenues were never realized.
O'Reilly denied that Vogel's problems were the main reason for the Senate decision.
"There are many details that give us problems," he said. "We shouldn't and we would not react to the problems of one individual."
Miller, however, said a resolution of Vogel's problems could boost legislative chances for OTB.
"That would be a good starting point," he said. "This year we don't have a harness track owner who is a viable participant in the legislative arena."