Maryland's top law enforcement officer has come out firmly against casino gambling, calling the proposal a potential "disaster" for the state that would cause crime to "skyrocket."
In a speech delivered last night, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. predicted casinos would attract organized crime, make drugs and prostitution more available and push compulsive gamblers to steal.
"We could expect to see an increase in virtually every kind of crime," Mr. Curran said in an address to the Maryland Sheriff's Association in Ocean City. "Whatever dubious financial benefits
might flow from casino gaming are outweighed by the tremendous social costs."
With his remarks, the attorney general becomes the highest-ranking state official to take a position against casinos. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced his opposition last month during his re-election campaign.
Mr. Curran's speech comes at a time when casinos appear to be struggling to develop popular support while opposition continues to grow and organize. His address to the sheriffs is part of a barnstorming effort to enlist the support of law officers around the state. In the past month, Mr. Curran also criticized casinos in two other addresses to law enforcement officials that drew little publicity.
While the attorney general has no direct political influence on the issue -- the governor and legislature will decide whether to legalize casinos -- his office has considerable symbolic power when it comes to gambling matters.
The attorney general's opinion "obviously carries a lot of weight, said Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "It should for the public, and it will for me."
Some legislative leaders, however, said they doubted Mr. Curran's opposition would have much effect on the debate over casino gambling, the most talked-about issue leading to the 1996 General Assembly session.
"I don't see any political impact," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., pointing out that many officials expected Mr. Curran's opposition. "Joe Curran has been my friend of 30 years, and he's always taken the high road on moral issues of our time," added Mr. Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.
John Adams Hurson, the House majority leader, didn't think Mr. Curran's speech would have much influence either -- but for a different reason. Mr. Hurson said he thought casino legislation already had little chance in Annapolis.
"I don't think there continues to be a need to pound away because I don't think there are the votes" to approve casinos, said Mr. Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat. "There is always the possibility of reviving the corpse, but it's going to take an enormous amount of effort."
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. declined to comment on Mr. Curran's speech. The Cumberland Democrat said he would continue to reserve judgment on casino gambling until a state task force issues a report on the matter this fall.
Mr. Curran's opposition is not surprising to those familiar with his politics. As a state senator in the 1970s, he initially opposed establishing the Maryland Lottery. In 1992, he was against expanding the lottery's offerings to include keno, the electronic bingo-style game. He also has opposed proposals for off-track betting in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
Mr. Curran said he based his conclusions about casinos on a series of reports and studies from other states. He also took a two-day trip in July to Atlantic City, where he interviewed members of the city police department, the city prosecutor's office and other officials.
He said that in the 10 years after casinos opened in Atlantic City, violent crime rose by nearly 200 percent and larceny went up by 481 percent.
Casinos provided additional tax revenue for law enforcement, but the money was not enough to keep pace with rising crime, Mr. Curran said. If Maryland legalized casinos, he said, it would face the same problem.
"The indisputable fact is that crime in this state would still skyrocket," Mr. Curran said.
Gerard E. Evans, who lobbies for casinos in Annapolis, disputed the attorney general's findings.
Mr. Evans said an FBI agent who had overseen Atlantic City testified during Maryland's last legislative session that there was no appreciable increase in crime. "Obviously, members of law enforcement differ," Mr. Evans said.
By attacking Atlantic City in his seven-page speech, Mr. Curran went after the casino industry's Achilles heel. Visibly decayed and still struggling to develop economically, Atlantic City has been a rallying cry for gambling opponents in Maryland since the state began holding public hearings on the issue in July.
Thomas C. Shaner, executive director of the Maryland Gaming Association, a consortium of three casino companies, also disputes Mr. Curran's assessment of Atlantic City. But, he conceded, "Atlantic City is the worst thing the industry has going."
For casino companies trying to shed that image, Mr. Curran's opposition only adds another step to their uphill battle.
Mr. Curran said he plans to address Maryland prosecutors on the issue this month and will present his findings to the casino gambling task force at its public hearing next month in Baltimore.
"I'm getting the message out," he said.