Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister and past president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, says he won’t veto a bill allowing voters in two communities to decide whether to expand electronic gambling at racetracks.

Huckabee, a third-term Republican, said Wednesday he would not sign the measure opening the door to new electronic “games of skill” at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis. Instead, he will allow it to become law without his signature by leaving it on his desk for five days.

In a letter to Sen. Jim Argue, the president pro tem, Huckabee said he considered vetoing the bill but doubted the veto would be sustained, according to news reports. “It doesn’t help the legislative process to veto a bill just to have it overridden,” Huckabee said.

The bill sailed through both houses of the Arkansas legislature in nine days. It passed the Senate 18-14 on March 9. The House passed the measure 57-38 on March 15.

Despite Huckabee’s pessimism about a veto being overridden, some in the state criticized the bill as flawed and poorly planned.

“When major legislation sails through the legislature with lightning speed, there is always a reason. It can’t stand much analysis and discussion,” said a Wednesday editorial in the Arkansas Leader.Since the Legislature didn’t want to take the time, Gov. Huckabee can give it a respite with his veto pen.”

The bill says horse racing and greyhound racing parks in Arkansas boost the economy and tourism, but they operate at a “competitive disadvantage” to counterparts in other states. That results not only in lost tourism, the bill maintains, but in Arkansans crossing state lines to spend money in casinos or on video machines that they otherwise might have spent at home.

Since the Arkansas Constitution prohibits “games of chance,” the bill would permit only games that include an element of skill or judgment. But critics say those games, like video poker, are among the most addictive forms of gambling.

Nicknamed by opponents “the crack cocaine of gambling,” such machines were reportedly one of the games of choice for moral values pundit William Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues, who was disgraced two years ago when media reported he had lost as much as $8 million over the previous decade, mostly to slot machines and video poker.

Huckabee, who has criticized previous gambling measures, said he remains opposed to gambling but took some consolation in the fact that the measure must still be voted on in two counties. “My basic philosophy of government has always been that the best government is that which is closest to the people,” Huckabee said, as quoted by the Associated Press.

A graduate of a Baptist college, Ouachita Baptist University, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Huckabee was pastor of Baptist churches in Arkadelphia, Texarkana and Pine Bluff, Ark., before entering politics in 1993.

First elected as lieutenant governor, Huckabee was sworn in as governor in 1996, filling a vacancy created when Gov. Jim Guy Tucker resigned due to a felony conviction in the Whitewater scandal.

Huckabee won election to a full four-year term in 1998 and was re-elected in 2002. He won’t be allowed to seek a fourth term, because of term limits.

From 1989 to 1991, Huckabee was president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, which as recently as last fall voiced opposition to the expansion of gambling in the state.

In reporting Huckabee’s decision not the veto the gambling measure, the state convention noted on its Web site that a Baptist congregation mentioned in an AP article as being identified with one of the bill’s key supporters “is not a Southern Baptist church.”

Southern Baptist Convention resolutions against gambling date back to 1890. The most recent, in 1997, called on Christians to refuse to participate in any form of gambling and urged political leaders to enact laws “restricting and eventually eliminating all forms of gambling and its advertisement.”

Supporters of the Arkansas bill said expanding games of skill at the two race tracks could add another $30 million in state revenue and create as many as 2,500 jobs, with payroll up to $38 million.

But Huckabee said he agrees with opponents who warn that social damage from such games outweighs any potential benefits.

“Gambling typically exploits the poorest people in our society because they see it as a fast track to get ahead,” Huckabee told the AP. “But the few people who get rich are running the games and the people who always lose are the ones who play the games.”

Popular with the religious right, Huckabee was the sole governor to speak last fall at the Christian Coalition’s “Road to Victory” conference, where he reportedly compared American culture to the last days of the Roman Empire, calling for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and belittling the separation of church and state.

He recently received publicity for convening a Valentine’s Day rally in a Little Rock coliseum supporting “covenant marriage,” laws on the books in some states that allow couples to opt for marriage involving a contract that makes it harder to get a divorce.

He also has emerged as a new spokesperson for fitness, losing more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with onset of Type II diabetes. His third book, Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork, is due out in May.

A movement is underway to draft him to run for president in 2008.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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