Lottery funny business 

Lottery funny business

Arkansas's new state lottery is making big payouts to lucky winners even before the first ticket is sold. Is this an early example of the success that lottery proponents predicted? Or not?

Ernie Passailaigue didn't have to put up a quarter to win legislative approval of a $324,000 salary for himself and $225,000 salaries for each of two friends he hopes to bring with him. Clearly the Arkansas lottery is working quite well for the South Carolinians who'll run it. Yet we're nagged by suspicion that Arkansas buddies who invest jointly in lottery tickets will not be rewarded nearly so handsomely. Passailaigue's pay is the third highest for a lottery chief executive officer among the 44 states that have lotteries. The salaries of his top deputies will be higher than the salary of the lottery chief executive in all but six states.

Passailaigue suggests that the problem is not with the lottery but with Arkansans too slow-witted to see the need for such generous compensation. He told legislators last week: “You cannot go back and talk to the average person about this [creating a state lottery] because they will not understand it.” State Sen. Terry Smith of Hot Springs, concurred: “No one understands what goes on internally to build a world-class lottery.” It's technical, see.

But is it really? A state lottery is not the equivalent of the Manhattan Project; we're not building the first atomic bomb here. State lotteries date back to the 18th century, and most states already have lotteries in operation. There are people around who know how to run a lottery. (And there are people in Arkansas state government right now who are doing more important and more complicated jobs. Think running a lottery is hard? Try running the Department of Human Services.)

State Rep. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, was not taken in by the Passailaigue-Smith spiel. “I think the voters are smarter than that,” he said. But Key was very much in the minority, his fellow legislators united in assuming that the taxpayers' comprehension is less than their own. They assume too much.

We cannot yet say that our worst fears about the lottery have been realized. Those have to do with lottery proceeds replacing rather than supplementing tax dollars spent on higher education, and with the poorer classes being asked to do more for their state while the privileged are allowed to do less. That determination is a few years off.

So far, though, lottery commissioners and legislators seem to be going about the creation of a lottery in much the same way the UCA Board of Trustees goes about hiring a president. It is not assuring.        



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