Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

TOP STORY >> Ernie P. says we’ll find out he’s the best

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor-in-chief

The Arkansas Lottery Commission is an embarrassment. Most Arkansans are furious over the salaries the lottery commission has lavished on the new director and his staff.

But lottery director Ernie Passailaigue told the Political Animals Club in Little Rock yesterday that he’s going to make a lot of people happy when the lottery kicks off in October.

“There will be a bunch of smiling people,” Passailaigue said, talking about lottery players who’ll get rich and thousands of kids who’ll receive college scholarships.

As far as he’s concerned, he and his two sidekicks from South Carolina are worth the $774,000-a-year salary we’re paying them.

Wait a minute: Sam Walton didn’t pay himself that kind of a salary when he was building his empire. But it’s nothing compared to the Arkansas lottery.

Ernie P. has a pretty high opinion of himself. He’s making $324,000 a year, or $6,230 a week. No wonder he’s smiling.

You get the impression if you offered him $1 million a year, he’d take it because he knows he’s that good.

A lot of people think Gov. Mike Beebe and the legislature should rein in the commission, reduce staff salaries and even start all over, even if it means putting off the lottery until next year.

Especially if it means delaying it a year or more. If you read newspaper editorials and drink coffee with friends, people will tell you this is Arkansas’ worst scandal since the highway commission shenanigans more than half a century ago.

We may be a bunch of rubes when it comes to lotteries, the argument goes, but the new director, his staff and the commission shouldn’t have picked our pockets.

Everyone’s mad at them, so why not let them go? Give the staff a modest severance pay and let a couple of hungry young lawyers run the show for a fraction of what Ernie and Co. are paid.

But that won’t happen. Ernie’s allies are dug in, and he can take the criticism. He’s an old pol from South Carolina, and some grumpy old editorial writers won’t scare him away.

Passailaigue has lost a lot of credibility with Arkansans, and so has Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, the Manchurian candidate who helped create this monster. He made his name pushing for the lottery and hoped to succeed Beebe one day. But, really, both their reputations are tarnished.

Legislative oversight is needed more than ever. House Speaker Rob Wills (D-Conway) and Sen. Bob Johnson (D-Bigelow), the president pro tempore of the Senate, are part of the team that brought Ernie P. to Arkansas.

Now they say they want to approve all salaries above $80,000. Other legislators also want to put the brakes on this runaway train.

“The governor has been concerned about the astronomical salaries,” said state Sen. Bobby Glover, (D-Carlisle.) “Apparently they’ve given the director free rein. He’s said if they aren’t going to let him run it, he’s ready to go back to South Carolina.”

Glover said that while the lottery commission is independent of state government, Beebe, Johnson and Wills each made appointments to the commission.

Sen. Mary Anne Salmon (D-North Little Rock) says if she had it to do over again, she’d set the top and bottom salaries. Salmon is on the legislative oversight committee for the lottery.

“We probably should have emphasized that the pay scale has a bottom and a top and we’d like to get most of the people in the middle,” Salmon said.

But she said all three top hires had opportunities to go somewhere else. “We needed them here,” she insisted.

Salmon said the lottery will be a multimillion-dollar business and it is necessary to pay a competitive rate to get experienced people to come in and run it.

“We’re eager to get it off the ground and get some scholarships going,” Salmon said.

“I’m pleased that the commission has said it wanted to approve any future salaries over $80,000.”

Well, sure. Ernie P. called the Hogs yesterday at the Political Animals Club, and it looks he’ll stay a while. He’ll also hire more Arkies, but for a lot less dough.

Pig Sooie.