Leader Blues

Friday, June 05, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Lottery boss hits jackpot

After dallying with lottery legislation themselves for months, Arkansas lawmakers suddenly insisted that speed was essential and stampeded the state Lottery Commission into hiring a director of the Arkansas lottery Friday. They hired a man who had not applied for the job at a salary far exceeding the one that he is getting and about whom they knew precious little.

We hope he is exactly the right person for the job and that they (and the rest of us) do not have to repent in leisure what they did yesterday in so much haste.

Ernest L. Passailaigue Jr. sounds like he has the credentials that the lottery promoters, including Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, wanted.

They said the director should have lottery experience, which excluded everyone in Arkansas. Passailaigue is the executive director of the South Carolina lottery. He had no experience with lotteries before he became head of the new South Carolina lottery in 2001. He was a politician.

“We’ve got a winner,” Halter said.

Passailaigue should satisfy the legislators who have been pushing for quick action in getting the lottery going. Passaliaigue is a former South Carolina state senator. In fact, he sponsored legislation creating the South Carolina lottery and then became its first director. He also ran for governor of South Carolina in 1990 and lost rather badly. He is an accountant and once owned a professional baseball team.

With credentials like that, why look any further?
The state Lottery Commission, largely handpicked by state legislators, panicked this week when legislators grumbled that the commission was taking too much time picking a director, which was postponing the day when Powerball tickets would go on sale. So the commissioners met in secret session twice at the end of the week and chased down Passailaigue, who agreed to take the job at a salary of $324,000. Actually, it was Passailaigue who suggested the figure, and the commission instantly agreed. He is earning $226,829 a year at Charleston. But Chairman Ray Thornton said Passailaigue would be giving up some benefits that he gets in South Carolina, which he did not identify. Presumably, the Arkansas job will come with health and retirement benefits.

In South Carolina, the principal qualification for the man to kick-start the lottery was to be a well-connected politician who had sponsored legislation to create a lottery. In Arkansas, the qualification apparently was the same, with the additional qualification that he have actually got one started.

The extraordinarily lucrative Arkansas offer comes at a good time for Passailaigue. Blogs have been titillating South Carolinians with reports that the lottery chief, who is married and has seven children, moved a woman out of his office and into another $67,000-a-year position in the big lottery operation after complaints from employees that she was his girlfriend. The South Carolina lottery is a big, big operation — some 150 employees. We’ll soon have another big bureaucracy at Little Rock.

But what the lottery commissioners, the lawmakers and Halter, the lottery godfather, wanted was someone who could get over the early hurdles quickly so that people can start gambling their checks away before the end of the year. Passailaigue ought to be the man for that. We don’t think that is worth anything close to $324,000, which is nearly four times the governor’s salary and more than the director of any state department, but we admit it: We have a poor appreciation for the value of lotteries. It clearly is the most important undertaking in modern history.

We will suspend our misgivings and hope that Ernie Passailaigue will take Arkansas into the bright tomorrow that the lottery promoters say is coming.