I got Lance Huey on the phone shortly after lunch Monday. He broke off the conversation periodically to bid goodbye to friends who'd dropped by his going-away party.
At 6:30 p.m. Monday, Huey resigned as Grant County sheriff. Tuesday morning, he went to work as director of security for the new state lottery.
Huey's hiring for more than $115,000 (almost a $70,000 jump from his pay as sheriff) poured gasoline on a statewide brush fire about lottery salaries. To give you some idea: When a marketing director was picked at $92,000, it was the lowest pay to date, but still enough to make the average Arkansas family feel richer than Scrooge McDuck.
The lucky ducks of the lottery are defensive. Not without some reason. It's one thing for taxpayers to grumble. But when legislators start chunking rocks from their glass tower, it's another. Six-figure paychecks aren't unheard of on the legislative staff, nor are state-provided cell phones and cars. It wasn't lost on many that House Speaker Robbie Wills, who approved lottery pay scales, harrumphed about pay while enjoying Chinese cuisine and sightseeing on a government-paid junket to Taiwan.
Huey went on a Little Rock radio show Monday morning to say that he really won't make more money than State Police Director Winford Phillips, whose salary is about $108,000.
“He's a good guy and he's my friend, but he's been unfairly cast into this debate,” Huey said, before bringing Phillips right into it. Huey noted that Phillips was drawn out of retirement to take the director's job, which means he makes a cumulative $160,000 to $170,000 from retirement and current pay. Since lottery director Ernie Passailaigue makes more than $420,000 from Arkansas pay and South Carolina retirement, this is perhaps not a fruitful comparison. Huey himself will qualify for State Police retirement in seven years, when he turns 52.
Still, I have some sympathy for Huey, who was one of several State Police veterans interviewed for the job. Was he supposed to reject an offer because it was too high?
“You have to ask yourself: Have you ever bargained yourself down at something? I think Ernie saw in me the person he needed for this particular job.”
There are risks. “If I strike out, he'll send me to the showers,” Huey said.
Huey has abundant experience to be the lottery's liaison with local law enforcement agencies, which will have new potential problems when lottery machines hit every crossroads in Arkansas. He'll work with the State Police, which will do background checks on retailers.
Huey, by the way, grew up in East Arkansas. A State Police assignment took him to Grant County, where he was elected to Quorum Court and then sheriff.
He said he'd encountered Grant County native son Ray Thornton, the lottery commission chairman, only twice in his life — once to say hello at the courthouse and once when the sheriff helped with traffic at the funeral of Thornton's mother, sister of financiers Witt and Jack Stephens. Huey said he'd never met the tycoons and had been to the Stephens family farm at Prattsville only on routine law enforcement calls.
Huey wishes, most likely in vain, for a bit more understanding. “Any of those people who were sitting across that table in my place would take that deal if they knew they were qualified and knew they could do the job.”
Huey knows, though, that he's under the microscope. “I jumped out of the little pond to the big lake of Little Rock and I'm ready to go.”