VIRGINIA VOTERS will decide in next month's election whether the state is to have big-time horse racing and parimutuel betting. Much of the debate on the issue is in familiar terms. On one side are horse fanciers and those who are looking for new state revenue. On the other side are many church groups, to whom gambling is a sin, and those who fear parimutuel betting will bring crime and corruption. Without reaching those issues, we think the proposal on the ballot is faulty and ought to be rejected.
The basic trouble is that the General Assembly tried so hard to meet the corruption issue that it created a monster in the state Racing Commission. Its five part-time appointees would have total control over both horse racing and betting - over who is licensed to build the tracks and conduct the race meetings and who gets the permits required of all those who work at the tracks. It could refuse papers to anyone if it "would not be in the interests of the people . . . or the horse-racing industry of the Commonwealth." It could turn away or eject spectators whose presence "may . . . reflect on the honesty and integrity of horse racing." It decisions could be overturned by the courts only if they were arbitary.
Such an unfettered grant of power presents enormous opportunities of abuse. It may even be unconstitutional. Read literally, the legislation requires newspaper reporters as well as jockeys, newsboys as well as trainers, sellers of ice cream as well as sellers of betting tickets to obtain permits before stepping inside the track premises.
The ballot proposal is also faulty because of the limit of two major tracks that could be built - one, as we understand it, for the Norfolk area and the other for Northern Virginia. Limiting the number makes each track license, in effect, a license to coin money. If Virginia is to have big-time racing and parimutuel betting, it would be better off either building the two tracks itself or letting competition determine the number of tracks of the public will support.
These matters may seem trivial to Virginians busy debating the broader issues of sin and corruption and revenue. But they - along with such other features as the "Virginia Breeders Fund," which would get some of the betting money to promote the growth "of a native industry" - convince us that it is not necessary, in this instance, to wrestle with the hard question of whether parimutuel betting is good or evil. Either way, the particular proposal Virginia voters are being asked to approve is bad.