Md. may want more cash from OTB Prospects for bill's passage look good, lawmakers say

December 13, 1991|By Ross Peddicord

Maryland legislators might have their eye on increasing the state's share of betting revenues if off-track wagering is enacted in the state.

Delegate Tyras S. Athey, D-Anne Arundel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said yesterday that "the prospects [for passage of an OTB bill] look very good. But the bill that is being proposed right now is not signed in stone. My feeling is that there has got to be more revenues for the state."

A group of 14 legislators from the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees met in the Pimlico Sports Palace yesterday for an on-site visit to see a prototype OTB tele-theater. The Pimlico outlet serves as an inter-track simulcast facility while the live races are being run at Laurel.

The legislators seemed favorably impressed. "I'll give you 1-5 odds that an OTB bill passes" in the coming session, said Delegate Paul E. Weisengoff, D-Baltimore. "The industry simply has to have it to remain competitive with other states. There is always a problem with racing bills in Annapolis because there are always people opposed to gambling. But common sense will prevail."

Delegate Thomas H. Hattery, D-Frederick, echoed Weisengoff. "This is a very controlled industry," Hattery said. "We have to be careful we don't control it out of business."

Under the current OTB proposal, prepared by industry representatives, the state's share of the takeout (or portion of the betting dollar) at OTB parlors would be one-half of 1 percent, the same amount the state currently receives on-track.

The late Frank De Francis was instrumental in persuading the legislature to reduce the state's share of the takeout from 4.09 percent to one-half of 1 percent when he took over ownership of Laurel and Pimlico.

"With De Francis then, it was sink or swim," Athey said. "The industry needed the [tax] relief and we really had no alternative." But, Athey added, the time has come with the introduction of OTB for the state to reconsider its position. "Maybe after discussions, I'll think differently," he added.

Joe De Francis, current operator of the thoroughbred tracks, said re-working the tax structure would discourage private investors from building or leasing OTB facilities. "This is the classic example of how government acts in a recession," De Francis said. He said more taxes would make it uneconomical for investors to develop satellite simulcasting centers.

Attendance and betting have declined recently in both the state's thoroughbred and harness racing industries. Officials feel OTB is needed to expand the market and solidify the $1 billion industry's future.

"Last year there didn't seem to be the immediacy to pass an OTB bill," said Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "This year there is."

Weisengoff predicts an OTB bill will be introduced early in the 1992 session and that the leaders of the two houses, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's, and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, who weren't at Pimlico yesterday, will sponsor the measure.

Miller has already said he supports passage of OTB legislation and the Schaefer administration is also backing OTB.

"I can't say we will stand up and support this particular version" of the current OTB proposal prepared by the Maryland Horse Coalition, said Mark Wasserman, secretary of economic and employment development, at a news conference yesterday. "But we'll massage it and make into acceptable public policy."

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