ANNAPOLIS -- Off-track betting, an early favorite in this legislative session, was enacted by the General Assembly yesterday.
The Senate voted 29-18 to accept amendments from the House of Delegates and sent the legislation to Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Off-track betting -- satellite simulcast racing, in legislative parlance -- is seen as a way to bolster Maryland's sagging horse racing industry.
The bill allows an unlimited number of sites, envisioned by OTB proponents as posh "sports palaces."
The money generated by the betting parlors would be taxed at 0.5 percent, the same tax currently applied to track wagers, unless the off-track "handle" tops $100 million in a year. Then an additional 1 percent tax kicks in, increasing by 1 percent for every additional $50 million, up to a maximum of 4.5 percent.
Senators who opposed the bill said the tax was too low. In a tight budget year, they said, when legislators are asking everyone else to pay more taxes, the racing industry should not be exempt.
"It's appropriate for this bill to come back today, on April Fools' Day," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a Baltimore Democrat.
"The racing industry has certainly succeeded in making fools of this legislature."
The amended bill was especially galling to senators who oppose off-track betting, because it was even more favorable to track owners than the original Senate version.
Under the first Senate proposal, the tax would have been applied to the entire daily handle. The House changed the bill so it applied only to wagering at OTB sites, which Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, Finance Committee chairman and floor leader for the bill, said was in keeping with his committee's "intent."
Sen. John A. Cade, an Anne Arundel Republican, was not impressed.
"As the bill left the Senate, it was almost totally a bailout of the racing industry," Senator Cade said. "The House has compounded the felony, if you will."