IN a move with national portent, California is considering legislation that would make it one of the first states to allow people to bet on horse races in their own homes through television.
The idea of "interactive TV wagering" is being pushed by horse-racing interests, who see it as a way to revive a declining industry. But church groups and others worry that it will dramatically expand gambling in the state.
"I could see all these couch potatoes out there who watch television all day long becoming hooked on it," says Harvey Chinn of the California Council on Alcohol Problems, a church-backed advocacy group.
The legislation that passed a state Assembly committee last week would allow racetracks to enter into agreements with cable-television systems to provide wagering services to individuals. Credit accounts for bets
Sponsors say players would be given access codes and a key-pad-like device attached to a cable box through which they could place bets. They would use credit cards or cash to establish lines of credit. Winnings would be deposited into their accounts. Those who overdrew would not be able to bet again until they put in more funds. Races would be broadcast on a cable channel.
In-home betting represents a tantalizing new frontier for interactive television entrepreneurs as well as gaming and other interests. Most of the at-home wagering that has been done to this point has revolved around the telephone. New York, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, for instance, all offer or have operated some form of home betting on horses.
Under Pennsylvania's system, residents open accounts by leaving a small deposit at the track. They then place bets from home by calling an 800 number. The races are shown on cable TV.
Other attempts at initiating armchair gambling have proven less successful. The Massachusetts Lottery dropped a wager-by-phone plan after people objected to the high cost of the tickets. In 1991, Minnesota abandoned a plan to marry video-game technology to lottery sales in the face of criticism that it amounted to using a toy to promote gambling.
The horse-racing industry in California, like elsewhere across the United States, has seen track attendance and profits drop in recent years. Last year, $2.3 billion was wagered in the state on horse racing - down from $2.6 billion to $2.9 billion in better years.
The recession is partly to blame for the decline of horse racing in California. But track owners have also lost ground to better-marketed sports and to legalized-gambling ventures that are more accessible to the public. Tapping at-home habits of public
"The lottery, Indian gaming, and card rooms are all factors in the industry's decline," says Norm Towne of the Federation of California Racing Associations. "There is only so much people can do with their leisure dollar."
At the same time, industry sources say they face a public that increasingly spends time at home. Thus, they are interested in finding ways to bring horse racing to the people. Betting in California is currently allowed only at racetracks or satellite wagering sites.
At an Assembly hearing last week, Racing Federation president Jim Smith called the interactive-wagering measure potentially the most important piece of legislation since parimutuel betting was allowed in the 1930s.
Backers of the provision, part of a broad piece of legislation dealing with horse racing, believe it would help the California economy. The industry, which accounts for an estimated 40,000 jobs, generated $137 million in revenues for the state in 1992.
Critics counter that the only thing living-room betting will generate is more compulsive gamblers. They worry about exposing children to the culture and believe the home is no place for odds and wagers.
"I really believe there are more implications for in-home betting than for casino betting," says Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D) of Fremont, the lone dissenter in a 10-to-1 committee vote on the legislation last week. Encouraging illegal bookies
Others see difficulties in policing the practice.
"The danger with any kind of television or telephone wagering is that you really promote the potential for illegal bookie operations to be set up in the home," says John Lovell of the California Police Chiefs Association.
Enough qualms have been raised about the idea in recent days that the bill's sponsor, Curtis Tucker (D) of Inglewood, says he is rethinking the interactive-wagering provision. He says there may be other ways to help the industry "without being so intrusive."
Getting it through the legislature would be tough in any event: As an appropriations bill, it requires a two-thirds vote. Still, the idea remains alive for now, and many observers believe the debate over in-home wagering is just beginning - for California and states across the country.