Oklahomans voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to legalize gambling on horse racing.
Unofficial returns from all of the state's 2,398 precincts showed State Question 553 was approved 450,214 to 324,676. The question would permit pari-mutuel betting on a county option basis.
Unofficial returns gave the horse race betting issue 58 percent of the vote. It jumped into an early lead, never dropping below 54 percent of the vote.
The keen interest in the question was evident from the voter turnout.
According to unofficial returns 774,447 people cast ballots on SQ 553, compared to a vote of 748,571 on a similar betting proposal in the 1974 primary election.
The Oklahoma Horsemen's Association, which sponsored the question, declared victory two hours after the polls closed at 7 p.m. Mike Williams, a spokesman for the association, said he was surprised at the wide margin.
"I just personally underestimated the strength of our county coordinators," he said. "We carried counties we had no idea we could carry, such as ones in southeast and southwest parts of the state."
Williams said he hoped the opponents of pari-mutuel would keep an open mind long enough for the supporters to prove Oklahoma can have a first-class horse racing industry.
Dr. Boyce Bowdon, director of communications and public relations for the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church, said opponents are disappointed.
"Those of us who oppose State Question 553 are the first to be disappointed by its passage. Unfortunately, we won't be the last," he said.
Bowdon said disappointment will come in the months ahead to those who expect legalized gambling to produce an economic boon for Oklahoma and to those who suffer from the increased crime and political corruption legalized gambling will cause.
"The Untied Methodist Church opposed gambling long before SQ 553 was drafted," said Bowdon, a director of the Anti-Crime Association of Oklahoma which organized to fight the proposal. "We will continue to oppose it in county elections."
Pari-mutuel betting, a system of betting in which those backing the winners divide the total amount bet in proportion to their wagers, less a percentage for track operators, taxes and fees, was defeated the last time it was on a ballot.
On Aug. 27, 1974, Oklahoma voters rejected a pari-mutuel issue by 63,193 votes.
The battle to get this latest horse race betting proposition before voters took more than two years and involved a false start by the Oklahoma Horsemen's Association, the promoters of SQ 553.
In May, 1980, the association filed a petition but later abandoned it after discovering it didn't include a county-option provision.
A second petition, which included a county-option feature, was filed by the horsemen in August 1980, paving the way for Tuesday's vote.
Last June, the opponents of the gambling proposal dropped their attempts in the state Supreme Court to block the election, and Gov. George Nigh then set it for a vote on Tuesday's runoff primary election date.
SQ 553 provides for a seven-member Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission with one member from each congressional district and one at large member.
The at large member must be someone knowledgable of racing. No member can own an interest in a track or a horse running under a commission license.
Commissioners would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
The Legislature would have to provide funds to operate the commission.
The commission would supervise, regulate and control all pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing in Oklahoma and make rules and regulations for licensing persons to operate a pari-mutuel race track or race meeting.
The proposal provides for a 10 percent tax on admission tickets.
Revenue from this would go to the city in which the track is located.
If the track isn't located in a city, the taxes levied on admission tickets will go to the county in which the track is located.
The petition also provides for a tax of 12 to 18 percent on the proceeds from the sale of pari-mutuel tickets. The tax would be divided between the state general fund, the track and the purses that would go to the owners of winning horses.
The Legislature would decide the exact tax on the proceeds.
The petition's backers estimated the state could receive up to $3.5 million in taxes in the first year with just one track operating.
Horsemen said 31 states have legalized pari-mutuel racing and are receiving economic benefits in the form of increased business for the private sector and increased tax revenue for state government.
They estimated the value of racing to Oklahoma's economy would be $500 million a year.
The major opposition to SQ 553 has come from the Anti-Crime Association of Oklahoma, which counts among it members several religious denominations including Baptists and Methodists whose leaders called on their ministers to urge church members to vote against the proposition.
Opponents said gambling would be bad for the state economically, morally and spiritually.
They also said the Legislature could change everything in the petition because it isn't allows pari-mutuel by virtue of a state statute and not a constitutional amendment. BIOG: NAME:Archive ID: 85572