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Casino officials pledge a golden future for Maryland


Casino executives from across the country promised Maryland legislators a fortune in tax revenues and thousands of new jobs during the General Assembly's first public hearing on casino gambling.

Representatives of casinos including Harrah's and the Sands painted a tempting picture yesterday in which gambling interests could pay nearly $200 million a year in state taxes, create about 31,000 jobs and construct all the water and sewer lines needed to serve the gaming halls.

"The revenues generated for the states are tremendous," said casino lobbyist Ira C. Cooke, referring to the 18 states where casino gambling is legal.

But members of the state's horse racing industry warned lawmakers that casinos would only cannibalize Maryland's entertainment economy and cost thousands of jobs.

BTC "They're trying to get you all drunk on their numbers, and you can't take that first drink," Harford County horse farm owner Josh Pons told the joint meeting of the House Judiciary and Ways and Means committees.

Mr. Pons added that the resulting economic dislocation would hurt lifelong Marylanders, "not some guy from Harrah's with a suit that costs more than my car."

Yesterday's hearing in Annapolis was somewhat academic in terms of this legislative session, which ends April 10. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has said that he would veto any casino gambling bill this year because he thinks the state needs more time to consider such important legislation.

But the hearing, which ran for more than five hours, was a preview of what is expected to be one of the major legislative issues in Maryland for at least the next two years.

Under consideration are a series of bills that would allow riverboat, dockside and land-based casinos to operate in the state.

The proposals contain something for everyone.

Mr. Cooke estimated that nine casinos could generate a total of $198 million in annual tax revenue and create 1,500 permanent jobs each. Under House Bill 392, a riverboat gaming measure, each casino would be required to give $100,000 a year to fund a state program for compulsive gamblers, he said. The bill also would require that any casino built in Baltimore be minority owned.

Under questioning by legislators, Mr. Cooke acknowledged that casinos would have at least some negative effect on the state. He said casinos would create some short-term problems for other entertainment businesses.

"The dislocation is not as serious as the opponents are going to portray it," Mr. Cooke said. "You are going to have an increase, modest though it most likely will be, in compulsive gambling," he added.

Joining the horse racing industry yesterday in opposition to casinos were members of the state's religious community. Christian ministers argued that casinos would spawn more crime and encourage people to spend money they couldn't afford to lose.

"The only reason this group would approve this thing is because you want a cut," said the Rev. Lawrence D. Jameson, pastor of the Wesley United Methodist Church in Elkton. "The bottom line is you want that money for the government.

"What do you stand for?" he asked. "Do you stand for the family values that made this state great?"

Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the Ways and Means committee and sponsor of the riverboat gambling bill, said: "Maryland is now in a position to act, rather than react. We cannot afford to be complacent."

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