Before the state's politicians decided to resuce it, the Maryland racing industry was in very serious trouble. Laurel was failing financially; Timonium was an anachronism; Bowie was a depressing eyesore.
The governor and the legislators wrestled with the subject for weeks. When they were finished, they ensured that Laurel would remain a financial failure, Timonium an anchronism and Bowie an eyesore for the indefinite future.
A bill that called for the state to buy Bowie for $12 million and take it over failed at the eleventh hour. It failed not because the legislators suspected that it was a boondoggle benefitting private interests, but because it collasped under the weight of too many special interests, like a lifeboat that capsizes when too many people try to grab hold. It finally died amid wrangles over a peripheral subject -- dates for the state's harness-racing tracks.
Although they did it for all the wrong reasons, the legislators probably did the right thing when they let the bill die, because the problems of the industry are not so insoluble that they demand a state takeover. The remedy is obvious and it is one that has been proposed in various forms for years: consolidation.
Maryland can't support four profitable first-rate tracks, but it should be able to support two. Laurel and Pimlico, the tracks with the best facilities and the best locations, should buy out the racing dates of Bowie and Timonium. To help them finance the project, the state should cede the tracks a small percentage of its current revenue fom racing.
This would be no boondoggle, no giveaway of public funds to private interests. The only reason that Laurel and Pimlico can't afford to buy out the other tracks with their own funds is that they pay such a large of their revenue in taxes. In 1980 the Maryland thoroughbred tracks earned a pretax profit of $2.2 million, while generating $13.9 million for the state. If Maryland were to yield, say, $1 million a year of this so that the tracks could buy out their competitors, no one in his right mind could call it a giveaway.
With two tracks conducting all the racing in Maryland, they would become more profitable and thus be able to upgrade their facilities and offer better racing. Presumably they would attract more business and produce more revenue for the state in the long run.
But, of course, no one in Annapolis even considered such a plan. The debate over the racing bill illuminated a couple of the assumptions that politicians have about racing.
The state's cut from parimutual wagering is viewed not as a tax level on a private enterprise's earnings, but as money which belongs irrevocably to the state. Thus the financing of changes in the industry must come from another source: the betting public. Gov. Harry Hughes' consolidation plan, and the legislature's scheme for a state takeover of Bowie, were both going to be financed by the state's horseplayers, in the form of a higher "take" from the betting dollar.
No legislators were troubled by the fact that bettors, who are already heavily taxed, would be taxed even more to benefit the owners of racetracks. Politicians tend to view horseplayers as nonpersons. Their attitude was summed up by a state senator who said that while the Maryland racing bill was obviously a swindle, he would vote for it because it wasn't swindling any of his constitutents. He was forgetting that his constituents were among the horseplayers who were going to be paying $12 million to the owners of Bowie.
Bettors have been saved from this rip-off, but neither we nor the owners of the state's hard-pressed racetracks can reasonably expect any sensible treatment by Maryland's politicians when they next get around to worrying about the racing industry. As long as the state wants only to take from the racing industry but is never willing to give anything, the sport will remain in trouble.