ANNAPOLIS -- If Maryland allows the racing industry to open off-track betting parlors, the state should get a bigger share of the gambling proceeds, lawmakers said yesterday.
The state could use the money to help with a massive deficit that may spur higher taxes on a variety of goods and services, legislators said at a hearing on an off-track betting bill.
The state collects one-half of 1 percent of all money bet at the state's tracks, having reduced its take from 5 percent in 1985.
"We only get one-half of 1 percent. It's kind of hard to justify that to other businesses in the state," said Sen. James C. Simpson, D-Charles. "It's not the only industry in recession."
Several senators said they would consider raising the tax on the proceeds of off-track betting, although there were no specific proposals.
"Maybe 1 [percent] or 2 percent might not be so bad," said Sen. John W. Derr, R-Frederick.
Proponents of off-track betting concede that the tax issue may be the toughest political obstacle, although they think the legislature generally supports the concept.
A coalition of racing interests -- including breeders, trainers and the owners of the state's four tracks -- is pushing off-track betting, which they say is necessary to stay competitive with other states. They have the backing of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
"It's a major industry in trouble," he said.
The bill, sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, would allow the Maryland Racing Commission to license off-track betting facilities. Bettors would wager on races simulcast from Maryland and out-of-state tracks.
Track owners would handle the betting operation, while either they or private operators would run an accompanying restaurant at each location.
The money bet would go into the same pari-mutuel betting pool collected at Maryland tracks, which also will offer betting on out-of-state races.
Joseph De Francis, principal owner of Laurel and Pimlico race courses, said the revenue from off-track betting is necessary to attract better horses, which leads to more betting and better purses. Without it, the Maryland industry will decline, he argued.
"We don't look at this as a golden goose that will lay golden eggs for us," Mr. De Francis said.
A surprise opponent was Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who said off-track betting will only attract new bettors who may not be able to afford gambling losses.
"There's nothing in the bill to allocate money for compulsive gambling," he said.