By Jack Brammer
FRANKFORT — House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Wednesday that it’s not appropriate for the state to provide tax incentives for a Noah’s Ark theme park in Grant County.
He said he expects that the practice will be challenged in court and that the state will lose because it violates the U.S. Constitution’s mandate for separation of church and state.
Stumbo’s comments came during a wide-ranging news conference in his Capitol office, during which he also contended that Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, was “hand-picked” for the job by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and that he has decided not to make an expanded gambling bill the highest-priority measure in the 2015 General Assembly, because Churchill Downs has contributed heavily to House Republican candidates.
The Democrat from Prestonsburg predicted that Democrats will pick up at least three to five seats in the state House in November to keep control of the chamber. Democrats now have a 54-46 advantage in the House.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, called Stumbo’s news conference “a dog and pony show.”
“Speaker Stumbo is fond of using the term ‘dog and pony show’ when we propose ideas that he doesn’t like,” Hoover said in a statement. “Today’s dog and pony show by Speaker Stumbo is yet another ploy to play all sides and a desperate attempt to hold control of the House beyond November.”
Earlier this week, the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority voted unanimously to give preliminary approval of as much as $18.25 million in tax incentives for the $73 million first phase of the biblical theme park.
The Ark Encounter is to open in two years, featuring a wooden ark to be 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 55 feet high.
The park is affiliated with Answers in Genesis, which developed and operates the Creation Museum in Boone County. The museum follows a literal interpretation of the Bible and the belief, contrary to science, that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.
A state feasibility study of the project is expected to take six to eight weeks, and then the authority will decide whether to give final approval to the incentives, which Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear supports.
Stumbo said he understands that Grant County needs more economic development but that the use of state incentives is unconstitutional “because it erects a monument with the help of state money theoretically that is recognized by a majority religion in this country.”
He quickly added that he believes in that religion.
“But there is separation of church and state,” and the state cannot pick one religion over another, Stumbo said.
He predicted a legal challenge against the incentives, “and we’ll end up losing the lawsuit as a state, and we will have to pay legal fees to ACLU or whoever it is.”
American Atheists of New Jersey said this week that a lawsuit against the incentives is possible.
Mike Zovath, project coordinator for Ark Encounter, said the state is not promoting a religion with its incentives. “This is purely an economic issue,” he said.
Stumbo also was asked about a recent statement by the Kentucky Coal Association that a campaign ad by Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes was unfair and inaccurate. The ad attacked Republican U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over lost coal jobs in Kentucky.
McConnell “hand-picked” Bill Bissett to be president of the Kentucky Coal Association, “no question about it,” said Stumbo.
Stumbo said he knows that because he had tried to lobby for someone else to get the job in 2010, “but the cards had already been dealt.”
Bissett said Stumbo’s assertion is “news to me.” He said he came to Kentucky from a job in West Virginia with no political connections and that he is strongly supported in Kentucky by Democrats and Republicans.
“A board picked me, and I serve at the pleasure of the board,” Bissett said.
Allison Moore, a spokeswoman for McConnell’s re-election campaign, said it is “beyond astounding” that Stumbo would “publicly attack the integrity of the Kentucky Coal Association and its president.”
She said McConnell met Bissett after his appointment.
Stumbo had said earlier this year that he would make expanded gambling “House Bill 1” in the 2015 General Assembly — a designation to emphasize its importance.
But he said expanded gambling has “stumbled out of the gate” for that lofty designation in the wake of media reports in June that Churchill Downs has donated $100,000 to the Next Generation Leadership Fund to put Republicans in office in Kentucky.
Instead, Stumbo said, a proposal by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to allow a local-option sales tax probably will be House Bill 1 in the 2015 law-making session.
Meanwhile, he remained mum about possibly running for governor next year, saying he was focused on keeping Democrats in control of the state House. He did note that a new Bluegrass Poll this week showed that most Kentuckians are not familiar with candidates who already have announced their candidacies.
Stumbo said he will help Grimes’ campaign and will be in Hazard next Wednesday, when former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to be there to campaign for her. He said Grimes will conduct a college campus tour in her campaign to unseat McConnell.