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That lottery salary? Hold your fire 

Paying $324,000 to a guy from South Carolina to start up and run our lottery is not something I'm eager to take the lead in defending.

But I don't mind explaining it.

Certain Arkansas legislators got rightfully worried that designing this lottery was a daunting undertaking and that they needed good help. They scoured the region for someone positioned and qualified to advise and assist, settling on Ernie Passailaigue of South Carolina.

He was a state legislator of the conservative Democratic variety, as were they, who had proposed and designed that state's lottery as a state senator, then been hired to get it launched and run, subsequently succeeding.

Passailaigue turned out to be an amiable sort who developed over-the-phone friendliness with a couple of Arkansas people who were soliciting his help. So, as a personal favor without any pay and because South Carolina is far enough away from Arkansas that he wouldn't be competing with himself, he helped legislators draw our complicated bill.

He advised against the state's giving up sovereign immunity regarding the lottery, lest the lottery spend entirely too much time in circuit court. He advised against exemptions for the lottery from the Freedom of Information Act, explaining that, once a lottery gets up and running, it's not very interesting to reporters and you merely invite needless suspicion by trying to insulate it from standard public disclosures.

Then the new Lottery Commission invited Passailaigue to attend its frst inaugural retreat. He made quick, easy and strong personal connections, especially with Lottery Commission Chairman Ray Thornton and Commissioner Joe White of Conway.

He especially impressed them by saying Arkansas was like South Carolina in that there was a lingering cultural aversion to in-your-face lottery promotion and that the new lottery needed to be constructed and executed with sensitivity to that.

There were moments in which Thornton, White and others allowed themselves to wonder whether Passailaigue might be interested in running our lottery. But that seemed out of the question.

It was pretty well understood that the Commission would hire Tom Courtway. He is beloved by state legislative insiders. He is well-educated and competent, a tax lawyer schooled at Georgetown. He is an uncommonly hard worker experienced in leading state agencies through storms, having been interim director of the state Education Department and now, of course, interim president of the University of Central Arkansas.

But Courtway, tired and sensitive to criticism, withdrew from consideration.

Thornton and White, acting independently, dealt with their disappointment by calling Passailaigue. They inquired as to whether he might possibly, under any circumstance, be interested in this job.

He said to let him think about it, but there was something he needed to be candid about. This was going to be hard work and he had a good life in South Carolina, where, at 61, he had a grandchild on the way. He would be spending probably six months working hard in Arkansas while his family remained in South Carolina, preparing for the move. He'd want generous remunerative consideration for that.

Here's the rationale for the salary: Had we hired Courtway, competent but without a day of lottery experience, we would have needed consultants costing much more than Passailaigue. With Passailaigue we have a chance to avoid that expense and get this lottery running by November, two months earlier than with Courtway, most likely.

Legislators and other insiders are telling me this: A salary of $324,000 will pale against tens of millions of dollars in annual net proceeds for scholarships we likely wouldn't have reaped otherwise.

Criticize if you must, but bear in mind that, in time, the criticism will be more valid (if the lottery fails) or moot (if the lottery succeeds to the extent insiders are thinking it might).

Passailaigue is on the spot. And he's going to be paid well in the short term for being on the spot. And this is an investment we will be able to quantify strictly before too very long.

 

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