Church led opposition to gambling killed a Virginia proposal that would have legalized wagering on horse races in the state, spokesmen on both sides of the issue agreed yesterday.
"I think the horse industry has been wronged by the churches," said William Jennings, a spokesman for Virginians for Horse Racing, a group whose efforts to win passage of race track grambling failed Tuesday in a statewide referendum.
Unofficial results yesterday showed that the issue was rejected by a surprising 52 percent of Virginia voters. Despite published polls that showed the issue would win handily, it was rejected in every section of the state except Northern Virginia and the Richmond area.
A second question on Tuesday's ballot, giving the legislature the power to allow tax exemptions for rehabilitated or substantially renovated housing passed by a wide margin. It is designed to help revitalize declining neighborhoods.
The state legislature is expected next year to adopt enabling legislation and guidelines to determine how old a building must be to quantify for tax relief under the measure.
"They used churches and taxfree church dollars to run a campaign of scare tactis," Jennings complained.
"Separation of church and state is something we don't have here . . . We've been called scum, and told that our jobs of cleaning out stables are not needed. The horse industry is a very vital part of the agriculture industry in this state."
Jennings said efforts to restablish the horse racing industry would be renewed in state legislative races next fall. "We'll take it to the people in every locality in the state," he said, "Every candidate will have to take a position on the issue."
In addition to his complaints about church spending in this campaign, Jennings said that the lukewarm support of state leaders who favored the referendum, such as Gov. John N. Dalton, also hurt their campaign.
"The churches replaced the traditional party organization that I didn't have to work with," said Dennie Peterson, executive director of Virginians Against pari-Mutuel Gambling Inc., an antigambling group that plans to keep its organization active in expectation of future battles.
Jennings said he was concerned by the difference between the total number of people who voted in the gambling referendum (1.1 million) and those who voted in the Virginia senatorial contest (1.2 million). Although traditionally voter interest falls off on issue contests, Jennings said "something somewhere doesn't make sense." He did not expect the official state tally later this month to reverse the outcome, however.
"Here's my comment: The horse industry is hurt, but the real loser is the taxpayer," Jennings, a Springfield developer, said. But he added that he was optimistic for the long run despite the defeat. "They can't keep preaching sermons against us forever," he said.
Jennings and his allies campaigned on the theory that the construction of two large race tracks that would have been allowed under the referendum would have been added as much as $25 million in new tax revenue to the state as well as thousands of jobs.
The opponents, who included a coalition of major church denominations and important political figures, such as former Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr., maintained that these claims were inflated. Furthermore, they charged, the cost of additional police and regulatory personnel would make the net return to the state insignificant.
The main thrust of the church argument was that gambling is immoral. This message, coupled with the economic theme, was carried to thousands of voters through church newsletters and last Sunday, a special mention from the pulpits of an estimated 8,500 churches.
Although early polls showed the measure favored decisively, opponents figured that, as Peterson said, the support for the issue," was soft. The felling was more 'why not?' as opposed to really wanting it . . . My game plan was to win one of the big three - Tidewater, Richmond, or the Northern Virginia area. We targeted Tidewater, and of the six communities there we lost only two - Norfolk and Virginia Beach."
Although Jennings charged the opposition with outspending him 2 to 1, Peterson said his group spent a total of about $120,000. In contrast, Jennings said his group spent between $150,000 to $175,000.
Virginia outlawed betting at race tracks in 1892. Since then, although the state has a well known and respected horse breeding industry, the only horse races are those held for comparatively small purses on private estates or by hunt clubs. Neighboring states, such as Maryland, West Virginia and Kentucky all have professional race tracks with gambling.