FROSTBURG -- Maryland could expect to see a bonanza of new jobs and tax revenue if it legalizes casino gambling, officials from Mississippi and Missouri told a Maryland task force yesterday.
"Whether or not they like casinos, visit casinos or work in casinos, nearly everybody in Mississippi has enjoyed some benefit from casinos," said Charlie Williams, a Mississippi legislative leader -- and one of several gambling enthusiasts from other states brought to yesterday's hearing by casino interests.
Their testimonials to casino gambling contrasted sharply with opponents' warnings about moral decay, crime and job loss.
"It would be a disaster for the community economically, morally, socially," said the Rev. Edward C. Chapman, pastor of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Cumberland. "There's nothing good to be said about it."
The hearing was the third of four scheduled by the task force, which was set up by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the legislature to gauge sentiment toward casinos and their potential impact on Maryland. The final hearing is set for Oct. 16 in Baltimore.
The nine-member panel, headed by former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, is to make its recommendations in December. Proposals to legalize casinos in Maryland are expected to be a major issue during the legislative session that begins in January.
Gary R. Alexander, Maryland lobbyist for Horseshoe Gaming, a Nevada-based casino company, said he arranged for the testimony from out-of-state supporters to give the commission a glimpse of the positive side of gambling.
"I said, 'For crying out loud, we've got to get some real people in here,' " Mr. Alexander said. "It's the first time the commission really had before them some facts about casino gambling."
Mr. Williams, who chairs the Mississippi House Ways and Means Committee, told the panel that tax revenue is up and welfare payments are down in his state, thanks to its 28 casinos.
"Overall, gaming has been good for us in Mississippi, and I think it would be good for Maryland, too," Mr. Williams said.
David King, chief of police in St. Charles City, Mo., said his city of 60,000 west of St. Louis has had no significant increase in crime in the 16 months since a casino opened there. "The reality is far from the stereotype," Mr. King said.
And Donald M. Pierson, chief economic development official for Bossier City, La., said casinos there have provided jobs in a rural area that was unlikely to attract major businesses.
"It gave us 5,000 jobs in a place where we really needed them," Mr. Pierson said. "You bring in a silicon manufacturing plant, our people can't work there. They don't have the skills."
Other proponents included union representatives eager for building projects in economically depressed Western Maryland, as well as Allegany County Commissioner Arthur T. Bond, one of the few elected officials to publicly embrace casino gambling.
"We have lost thousands of jobs in the manufacturing area alone in the state of Maryland. We need income to address the needs of the people," Mr. Bond said.
But casino opponents -- who constituted the vast majority of the crowd of about 200 -- urged the panel to resist the lure of gambling revenue.
"The real issue is whether you stand in opposition to greed and covetousness," said the Rev. Monroe Wright, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Cumberland.
Another Cumberland minister offered the panel its first musical testimony. "This is the time to say, 'No casinos,' " sang Timothy Monn to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are A-Changing." His rendition elicited smiles even from some of the casino industry's lobbyists.