Tightly wound lottery loitering

Sent June 8, 2009

It's one way to spend a couple of hours, by which I mean loitering in a fifth-floor hallway of the University of Arkansas William H. Bowen Law School.

You have several media people, four or five of whom are putting their heads together to solve the statewide newspaper's Friday installment of its crossword puzzle. In their defense, the puzzle gets harder each day of the week.

You have three or four generic hangers-on. They're lobbyist-types or consultant-types, looking for work.

You have a couple of young lawyers from the attorney general's office.

You have the lawyer from the staff of the Legislative Council. She guards the closed door behind which the new state Lottery Commission meets in executive session.

That's why everyone is here. Starting a lottery is important. We don't do it every day. The commission is meeting in private on a "personnel matter," presumably the vital selection of a staff, primarily the head of that staff.

You have former House Speaker Bill Stovall, now a leading House staff member and Speaker Robbie Wills' point person on the new lottery.

A year ago Stovall told Wills that someone on the House side needed to get expert in a hurry on a lottery because one was coming and the Legislature would have to write the implementing statute. He was assigned to do it.

He'll tell you plenty about a lottery. He tells me, for example, that the Lottery Commission need not find office space high in some executive tower, but instead should seek out accommodations with a visible street-level storefront with a loading dock out back.

The state Senate has no staff person in the hallway. But the talk is that Sen. Bob Johnson, the president pro tem, is well-represented, or, more to the point, well-wired. One of his three appointees on the Lottery Commission, Ray Thornton, for whom Johnson worked when Thornton was a congressman, is chairman.

"Where are we meeting?" someone pointedly asks me, with a knowing inflection.

We're meeting at the law school, an employee of which is Julie Baldridge, who worked with Johnson on Thornton's congressional staff and was Johnson's chief administrative aide at the Capitol during the recent session.

You thought the politicians were supposed to stay out of the lottery. But they're also supposed to review it. So this is a fine line, holding the lottery accountable to elected representatives while keeping it independent of them. We seem to be achieving it, more or less, if clumsily.

Also on hand is Garry Hoffman, former newspaper colleague and now communications director for Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, the father of the lottery.

At one point every man in sight wearing a tie is either on his cell phone or thumbing his Blackberry -- Stovall communicating with Wills and Hoffman with Halter.

Then my phone rings. It's Halter. Hoffman had told him I was hanging around and he wanted to know what I was doing venturing out of the office actually to cover something -- that being a friendly jab, or what passes for one from Halter.

What Halter wants to do is pound into my consciousness that this selection of a staff director should not be a local political insider with no lottery experience, but instead a lottery expert from a nationwide pool.

Halter says the Razorbacks wouldn't hire a football coach from locally prominent baseball coaches. He says he would prefer an experienced surgeon to one without experience but who was local.

As a political outsider, Halter finds himself uncommonly reliant on the press.

He says we must get this lottery right so he can move on to his next project, whatever that might be. Some whisper that it'll be a Democratic primary challenge to Blanche Lincoln, but I can hardly imagine that.

Halter is wound seriously tight. Is there such a thing as attention surplus disorder?

Finally, the Lottery Commission invites us in and announces it will hire Ernie Passailaigue, the start-up director, in 2001, of South Carolina's successful lottery.

Most reviews are positive, especially from Halter.

When you think about, Halter, even as an outsider, has pretty much had his way on lottery issues.

It may be about time for him to rewind and start obsessing on his next project.

Brummett is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. His e-mail address is jbrummett@arkansasnews.com; his telephone number is (501) 374-0699.