Baptist ministers in Eastern Kentucky say they don't know whom House Speaker Greg Stumbo has been talking to about his gambling bill, but they have a message for him: They don't like it.
A group representing 26 churches primarily in Floyd, Magoffin, Martin and Johnson counties unanimously approved a resolution Monday night opposing Stumbo's legislation to allow Kentucky racetracks to install electronic slot machines known as video lottery terminals.
The resolution, passed by the Enterprise Association of Southern Baptist Churches, said the bill "encourages a get-rich-quick mentality that undermines the work ethic and will ultimately cost our economy far more than it will ever produce."
The group of churches includes two that Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, sometimes attends.
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In a statement on Tuesday to the Herald-Leader, Stumbo said: "I never did seek, nor did I expect, church leaders to support any form of gaming, and I fully understand their resolution stating that belief. Those I spoke to in confidence made it clear they felt that way as well, but indicated their opposition would not be any stronger should my legislation pass. I certainly understand and respect their views."
The ministers were prompted to take action by comments Stumbo made at a hearing last month in Frankfort about the proposal.
"I'm a Southern Baptist, and I'm kind of proud of that. We're not known for our liberal ideas; as a matter of fact, we're in most circles considered to be pretty conservative. But I have spoken with members of my church, including pastors in various churches in my community, and we've talked about this bill," Stumbo told the House Licensing and Occupations Committee on Jan. 21. "What I hear my preachers saying in my communities (is) that, 'Well, you know, we can't really be for more gambling but this isn't really an expansion of gambling as such because there are already people at these facilities that are engaged in that process.'"
"I was terribly disappointed by it and I didn't think it was a very honest statement," said the Rev. Randy Osborne, pastor of Garrett First Baptist Church in Floyd County. "I think he's trying to soften the argument down, to say if pastors and churches are not against it that it might not be too bad."
Osborne's message to the General Assembly: "We don't want this. We're just in total opposition to this."
Stumbo argued that since the slot machines would be controlled by the state lottery board, they would not entail new gambling.
"We're not talking about expanding gaming beyond where gaming is already taking place," Stumbo told the legislative committee. "Because to me it's no different than if the lottery chooses to put a new game out. ... It's not really an expansion of gaming, it's just a new form of gaming."
But the ministers in the group don't see it that way.
"It is a form of expanded gambling," said the Rev. Jerry Workman, pastor of the Prestonsburg First Baptist Church, where Stumbo sometimes attends. Workman said he has not spoken to Stumbo about the bill.
"We want to make that known to everyone that as Southern Baptist ministers we do have a problem with it," Workman said. "We're not in favor of it in any way. We do feel strongly about it."
The Rev. Tom Biddle, director of missions for the Enterprise Association that passed the resolution, pointed out that the ministers oppose the lottery itself as well as the racetrack proposal, which Stumbo said in five years could generate $340 million annually in tax revenue for the state.
"The resounding thing (Monday) night was that yes, we are very much opposed to this," Biddle said. He said their objections are partly biblical but partly economic.
"The money it would take to be gambled for the state to make the revenue that they claim it's going to make is tremendous," Biddle said, "And the families who will be doing that are families that could not afford to be losing money at that rate."
One longtime opponent of expanded gambling was glad to see the Baptist ministers make their position clear.
"I thought at the time, 'What a load of baloney,'" said the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, of Stumbo's comments about the lack of church opposition. "That was a statement devised to deflect the kinds of important moral considerations that should go on as the legislature considers any piece of legislation. All legislation has moral issues attached to it. ... Does this kind of economic activity really promote the good of Kentuckians?"