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Arkansas Lottery Commission hits panic button on salaries

Jul 17, 2009, 10:05 am

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Arkansas Lottery

High salaries doled out for top positions in Arkansas' state-run lottery program could sour legislators' relationship with the commission they created to oversee the games, Gov. Mike Beebe said Thursday.

The governor welcomed the Arkansas Lottery Commission's decision a day earlier to review salary offers of more than $80,000 made to future lottery hires. But the governor said he thought lawmakers were surprised that at least a half-dozen of the first employees hired to run the lottery got six-figure salaries.

"This could affect the Legislature going forward and their thinking," Beebe said. "Normally, when (the Legislature sets) line-item maximums there's not just a wholesale implementation of employment at those maximums. I'm sure there will be discussions about that."

One lawmaker called for the panel's chairman to step down.

The Lottery Commission voted 6-2 to review future lottery salary offers Wednesday, a day after Beebe first complained about premium pay given to the first lottery hires — at $324,000 a year, lottery director Ernie Passailaigue is the third-highest paid lottery executive in the nation.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," Beebe said Thursday. "I don't know how you can undo some of the things that have been done, but I'm sure those options probably can and should be discussed."

Passailaigue recently hired two lottery vice presidents with $225,000-a-year salaries, and this week he hired Grant County Sheriff Lance Huey as security director for the lottery at an annual salary of $115,644, more than the state police director's pay.

Five other lottery employees also have been hired at salaries ranging from $92,500 to $105,000.

The same day the commission voted to review salary offers, Passailaigue announced he had hired an information technology gaming director at a $150,000 annual salary.

Rep. Steve Harrelson, D-Texarkana, the House majority leader, said Thursday that he and other legislators have been receiving telephone calls from constituents who are concerned about the lucrative salaries.

"A lot of legislators are getting some heat from our constituents and in response we have to voice our concerns to the commission even though we don't have much authority over them," Harrelson said. "Will it strain the relationship? I don't know."

House Minority Leader Bryan King, R-Green Forest, was more blunt. He called for Lottery Commission chairman Ray Thornton to step down as the panel's leader, saying the public had lost confidence in the body.

King also said his constituents have been complaining to him about the high salaries and that the Legislature's involvement in the lottery process could increase if the commission "continues to make these kinds of decisions."

"I think to get the public confidence back, the first step ... would be for (Thornton) to step aside as chairman," King said, adding that he had not met with Thornton but hopes to do so soon.

Thornton did not immediately return calls seeking comment Thursday.

Beebe said the commission had "sufficient power and authority" to handle the salary situation.

"Well just see what they do," he said.

The governor had little to say about the lottery during the run-up to the November election in which voters approved a constitutional amendment creating the state-run program to fund college scholarships. Only after emerged from the ballot box did the governor give an opinion one way or the other on the proposal — he said he voted against it.

Beebe also remained mostly quiet on the subject as rules and regulations for the lottery were being debated during this year's legislative session.

After his address Thursday to the "Choices in Living" conference for people with disabilities in west Little Rock, reporters asked the governor why he was suddenly speaking on the lottery issue.

"It's time to talk about it," Beebe answered. "I have tried to stay out of it. There comes a point when staying out of it and keeping politics out of it becomes less of agenda items than trying to get a handle on something that appears to be headed in a direction that most people didn't foresee."

Harrelson said lawmakers are in a difficult position because "the Legislature was really under the opinion that we need to take as small a roll as possible in setting up the lottery, because while the constitutional amendment gave us the authority to implement the lottery, voters wanted autonomy."

"They wanted the lottery commission to operate on their own without the interference ... from the Legislature," he said. "Now, because of the number of phone calls from concerned constituents, lawmakers will have to step forward and let the commission know how they feel."

King said lawmakers originally tried to give the commission as much autonomy as possible.

"I feel like we needed to give them enough rope, but not enough to hang themselves, or ourselves, I guess," King said. "This is the one thing the people are talking about and it doesn't look good."

He also suggested politics may have been involved in some lottery hires. He noted the new lottery spokesman Julie Baldridge worked as an intern for Thornton when he was a congressman and that Thornton has family connections in Grant County, where the new lottery security director was sheriff.

"It just doesn't look good," King said.

Though changing the lottery amendment requires a public vote, the Legislature can in the future amend the framework it adopted this year to run the games.

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