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Is it a candy store?

Gov. Lawton Chiles' political tarbaby is the state lottery. No matter how hard he tries, or doesn't try, Chiles seems unable to unstick himself. Chiles' first lottery controversy involved the first lottery secretary, Republican activist Rebecca Paul, who was brought down from Illinois by former Gov. Bob Martinez. When Chiles promised during his campaign to get rid of Paul if he was elected, it seemed the expected thing to do. A governor has every right to choose a boss of the lottery who enjoys his full confidence. But when Chiles carried out his promise, he was widely criticized for firing the woman who had made the state's gambling business so successful.

Then the news broke that the lottery had hired several people who had no experience in the lottery business and did not qualify for their positions under the department's own job descriptions. In addition, they all were cronies, fund-raisers or relatives of people in the Chiles campaign.

First there were three such patronage plums. In a highly partisan letter to the governor from David Eller of Deerfield Beach, a Republican appointed to the Lottery Commission by Martinez, the list grew to six. Eller accused Chiles of turning the lottery into a "candy store" of patronage jobs. Three other members of the commission, all Republicans, want to discuss all this at the next commission meeting June 11.

So far, Chiles has not made a credible response. When his top spokeswoman, Mary Jane Gallagher, tried, she only made it worse by saying:

"We are unequivocally going to hire people for our agencies that support our philosophy. That's what getting elected is all about. We're certainly not going to hire our enemies and give them jobs. We've hired some people from the campaign for the lottery, and we plan to hire more."

That was as blunt a defense of the political spoils system as Floridians are likely to hear. And when politicians start talking about their "enemies," it's time for the public to begin paying very close attention.

How can Chiles free his new administration from this sticky and damaging issue? Does he want to? So far, there's no evidence that he does, but if he does he must demonstrate that he wasn't elected to bring back a Democratic spoils system to Tallahassee.

Not even the most partisan Republican would argue that the policy-making jobs in any administration, including the lottery department, should not be filled by people loyal to and supportive of the governor. But there's a limit, and below that limit jobs should go to people best qualified for them. When they don't, when they go to friends and fund-raisers, then the government becomes a candy store.

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