It was one of those awkward, seemingly-endless moments that elicited pained winces from both secular liberals and those of us who believe that prayer is a sacred communication with God.
Rev. Hershael York stepped up to the Speaker's lectern, before a televised joint session of the Kentucky General Assembly, purportedly to deliver the opening prayer. Instead, he launched into a blistering political diatribe, attacking Gov. Steve Beshear's signature proposal to generate tax revenue by expanding gaming in the Commonwealth:
May [the Legislature] never resort to leveraging vice and avarice to pay our bills... May they not lead this state to share profits from an industry that preys on greed or desperation. Help us to foster salaries, not slot machines, to build cars and enable jobs, not license casinos and seduce the simple into losing what they have.
While York's oration was as inappropriate as it was unsubtle, it certainly reflected a widely-shared worldview within the conservative Christian community: Gambling is immoral, and its creeping sprawl through Middle America should be contained.
This sentiment is not just limited to the right-wing, fire-and-brimstone set. My good friend and sometimes mentor, Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper -- a Yale grad, interfaith devotee and passionate advocate for social justice -- has been similarly outspoken. But instead of pronouncing judgment on private behavior, she addresses what she believes is the public immorality of the government's involvement in gambling's expansion:
[Gambling] leads to the sort of undoing of our common democracy, where we all pay in an equal and equitable way for what we need as a society. And this instead says, "Let's fleece the suckers and get them to pay for what we aren't willing to pay for ourselves."
Rev. Kemper makes a powerful point. There's no question that, in a practical sense, gambling levies a disproportionate tax on those who too easily fall victim to the false dreams of effortless riches, as well as on those who are addiction-prone to risky, self-destructive behavior.
Accordingly, if our progressive tax system functioned properly, I'd oppose gambling's expansion on those same grounds.
But as I've argued in this space on numerous occasions, our system of government is broken.And by generating desperately needed funds for basic human needs such as quality public schools, health care for the poor and affordable higher education, tax-revenue-generating gambling serves an extraordinarily valuable -- and yes -- a moral purpose for society.
Neither am I a libertarian. The notion that government should stay far out of people's lives runs directly counter to my vision of a politics of the common good. As I argued in my book, The Compassionate Community, the universal moral mandate "to love your neighbor as yourself" should guide our public policy. Accordingly, my support for gay marriage and legalized marijuana is not reliant on an "anything goes" worldview, but rather that these policies would fundamentally strengthen society and better address its public moral needs.
The same holds true for my philosophy toward gambling.
Our political system currently rests on a series of fundamentally false and downright pernicious premises. Our cardinal delusion is that we can balance our government's books and invest in our country's future without either raising taxes or reforming entitlement spending.
Of course, the polarizing and paralyzing deception is most pronounced on the revenue side. Not only have demagogic cries of "class warfare" stymied tax fairness reform efforts; as public confidence in government continues to plummet, voters are even less willing to entrust new tax dollars to politicians. A call to raise taxes can be tantamount to political suicide.
As a result, in most states -- where constitutions require balanced budgets -- the only politically viable option for many lawmakers is to slash morally-meaningful social programs.
That's where gambling comes into play.
Here in Kentucky, a recent study (commissioned by the pro-gaming state Chamber of Commerce) estimated that the economic impact of legalized casinos and slot machines at race tracks could exceed more than $1.7 billion in the first year alone. Critics suggests that's wishful thinking. But even the most conservative analyses suggest that hundreds of millions of tax dollars could be generated annually. In a state with a $19.5 billion budget, that's some serious bank.
As the state's former CFO, I can assure that the cash is desperately needed for critical state needs. Over the course of Gov. Beshear's first term, we were required to cut the budget nine separate times, with reductions totaling more than $1 billion. And with the federal stimulus dollars now dried up, the governor was forced to propose yet another $285 million in cuts, requiring many agencies that have reduced their budgets already by nearly 30 percent, to levy an additional 8.4 percent cut.
While many of the initial cuts sliced through government fat, the state has now lanced through the muscle and finds itself trying to suck out the bone marrow.
And Kentucky's situation is far from unique. While the national economy appears to be recovering, state tax revenues will lag, and it could be several more years before revenues are again adequate to meet critical local needs across the nation.
What does this mean?
Fewer teachers in the classroom. More children in poverty. Reduced access to affordable health care. Skyrocketing college tuition.
In short: a moral crisis.
Meanwhile, the moral objections to expanding gaming in states like Kentucky become less potent every day. Forty-two states now have some form of casino gambling. And residents of those that don't have gaming simply must drive a short distance into nearby states. The Chamber of Commerce poll cited above revealed that Kentuckians already spend $451 million annually on casino gaming in other states. We therefore suffer all of the moral problems identified by Revs. York and Kemper, but received none of the moral benefits.
And one more Kentucky-centric problem: For decades, the Bluegrass State has taken great pride in serving as the thoroughbred horse capital of the world. But as other states have been able to increase their purses by bringing slot machines and/or full blown "racinos" to their tracks, Kentucky venues have struggled mightily to compete. That's why the horse industry in the Commonwealth -- Democrats and Republicans -- has been the leading force for expanded gaming for more than a decade.
Just a few months before his death, Vice President Hubert Humphrey famously delivered what's now known as the "liberal credo" in his final speech on the U.S. Senate floor:
The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
Expanded gaming does not ace Humphrey's moral test such as a more progressive tax system would. But within our highly imperfect political system -- one that has exacerbated the economic and social problems our nation faces -- casinos and racinos and the substantial tax revenues they can deliver are the most politically viable measures that surely, on balance, pass the Humphrey test.
Expanded gaming is not a panacea for all of our problems. But with our community needs so desperate, it's a gamble worth taking.