Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

EDITORIAL >> How to get lottery jobs

Buyer’s remorse has set in with the Arkansas lottery in the wake of exorbitant hiring practices of the “independent” lottery commission and its director, but it is the nature of remorse to be late and fruitless.

Legislators one after the other have said they are shocked by the huge salaries paid to the new public employees at the lottery and that they never intended for the lottery to become such an extravagant playpen.

The speaker of the House of Representatives and the chief sponsor of the lottery’s enabling law last winter, Rep. Robbie Wills of Conway, said he went along with the $324,000 (plus perks) for Ernie Passailaigue, the South Carolina politician hired to run the lottery, but not all the other six-figure salaries. Gov. Mike Beebe was the first to detect rising public choler over the salaries and to say he didn’t like them.

One by one, the lawmakers who were picked by the legislature’s presiding officers to oversee the lottery’s operations (they can tut-tut or amen, but they are powerless to really do anything) said they didn’t expect the high salaries when they endorsed Passailaigue’s first pay schedule. But what did they expect when the maximums were so high? Actually, all the hires so far have been a little below the maximums the legislators endorsed, except for the sheriff of Grant County, whose $115,000 was the ceiling for the man who would look after security in the lottery offices.

Sen. David Johnson of Little Rock, an impressive young man who was elected to the upper chamber last year, was one of the overseers who expressed his dismay this week. He said the legislature, which will reassemble in January, should take another look at the lottery operations and reduce the big salaries. But it is not at all clear that the legislature can legally enforce any economies. The legislature’s power over compensation and other spending in government agencies lies in appropriations. One of the little-noticed provisos in the constitutional amendment authorizing the lottery that voters approved in November said the legislature could never appropriate any of the funds that the lottery raises. (Until the lottery starts, the lottery salaries are paid from the state’s general funds, which are your income taxes.) The lottery is supposed to be free to spend money however it wishes without restraints imposed by either the executive or legislative branches. That is in the Constitution now.

One man in the legislature and one on the lottery commission are not having any second thoughts. Ray Thornton, the commission’s chairman, and Sen. Bob Johnson, the president pro tempore of the Senate, who appointed Thornton to the commission, said all the hires were just fine and that there was nothing to regret.

John Brummett, the Stephens Media columnist who has blown hot and cold on the lottery business, suggested yesterday why no one should be surprised at the coincidence. When Thornton was a congressman from the Second District, Johnson was on his staff. Also on Thornton’s staff were Julie Baldridge, who had been an aide when he was president of the University of Arkansas, and Bridgette Frazier. When Johnson went to the legislature and became speaker of the House he hired Frazier, who had gotten a law degree, as the House’s “counsel.” The House had never had a lawyer on its staff before and some questioned whether it ever needed one. As presiding officer of the House and then the Senate, he borrowed Baldridge from the law school at Little Rock, where she had gone to work, to help him during legislative sessions.

As Brummett recounted it, Johnson asked Baldridge to help in developing the lottery legislation last winter and she made contact with Passailaigue in South Carolina to get advice. They got on good terms. Johnson appointed Thornton to the lottery commission and the others elected him chairman. Thornton called Passailaigue and got him to accept the Arkansas job for $324,000. Passailaigue’s first hire at Little Rock was Baldridge, who got a raise of $30,000. Next he created the job of lottery counsel and hired. . . . Who else but Bridgette Frazier? The security director, now the highest law enforcement official in Arkansas history, was the sheriff in Thornton’s home town.

Remember when all the lottery advocates, including Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, said it was important to go out of state and get a professional to run the lottery because it would be free of politics and cronyism. How did that turn out?