FOR NEARLY A DECADE of debate in Richmond, the odds were against enactment of a bill to permit betting and horse racing tracks in Virginia - but things seem to be turning around. Last week the General Assembly finally said yes and it is likely that Gov. John N. Dalton will sign the measure. Then it will be up to the voters to decide in a referendum this fall. In addition, there would have to be yet another referendum in any locality before a track could be built there.Over the years we have not exactly been enchanted by this prospect, but perhaps the referendum approach is the way to decide the question.

Certainly no one wants the kind of troubles that Maryland and many other states have experienced over the lucrative franchises that have become targets of opportunity for corrupt government officials. Supporters of the Virginia bill claim it includes the toughest restrictions on racing anywhere in the 30 states that have such operations. In response to claims that race tracks would attract organized crime and political corruption, drafters of the bill included provisions restricting ownership of stock in a track and prohibiting any member of the racing commission who would have enormous authority to regulate who works in any connection with a tract, from selling popcorn to owning horses.While this may seem to be a healthy safeguard against abuses, it could easily become a dangerous power to violate civil liberties.

Whatever the measure's drawbacks, however, it is unrealistic to keep on outlawing all forms of gambling in the hope of eliminating this pastime. Prohibition didn't stop people from drinking, let alone eliminate alcoholism. Nor will bans on gambling ever stop people from reckless betting. The questions are how best to monitor such activity and in what areas it ought to be allowed. In this instance, at least the voters retain some authority to decide.