The nationwide search for a new director to lead the beleaguered Minnesota Lottery ended close to home Thursday with the appointment of Clint Harris, executive director of the South Dakota Lottery.
Harris, 49, has led the South Dakota Lottery since 2000 and posted four consecutive years of record profits beginning in 2001. In fiscal 2004, the South Dakota Lottery produced more than $115 million for a state with a population of 738,000. That's due, in part, to its reliance on video gambling, with games such as video poker and video blackjack available in most bars and taverns.
The Minnesota Lottery, in a state with more than five times South Dakota's population, only broke $100 million for the first time this year. Last year it netted only $79 million. Concerns over the lottery's performance and expenses prompted a legislative auditor's report released earlier this year that found mismanagement and other problems.
In announcing Harris' appointment, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he hopes to set the lottery on a new path, with a long-range goal of breaking $250 million by 2024.
Whether that plan anticipates the lottery's addition of video gambling Pawlenty would not say, but he noted that Harris' experience in that area "is a bonus."
Harris, Pawlenty said, "has a remarkable track record of careful stewardship and solid revenue growth in South Dakota. We searched the nation for a strong and innovative leader for the Minnesota Lottery and found one here in the Upper Midwest."
Harris succeeds acting Director Mike Vekich, who was named to the post after the death of former Minnesota Lottery Director George Andersen in January. Andersen committed suicide hours after a meeting with legislative auditors to review a draft of their investigation into the lottery.
That report, released in February, found a pattern of mismanagement, no-bid deals to a favored consultant, a larger staff and higher operating expenses than other lotteries and, in particular, a promotional budget six times that of comparable state lotteries.
Among other things, Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said in his report that the Minnesota Lottery spent 13 percent of its budget on operating expenses, while other similar state lotteries got by with an average of 8 percent.
So disturbing was the report that some legislators thought the entire operation should simply be shut down. That move never got very far -- the Lottery's demise would blow a hole in the state's already strained budget -- but state officials were determined to find someone with impeccable credentials to bring the Lottery back to respectability.
Andersen, 53, had run the Lottery since its inception in 1989, and enjoyed a degree of autonomy rare in other state lotteries and in state government generally. Without so much as an advisory board to hamper him, Andersen answered only to the governor and could be fired, it was later found, only for a select set of reasons.
When Vekich took over, he immediately trimmed staff, closed offices and reworked business deals, saving millions of dollars in the process and putting the Lottery on its $100 million trajectory. The scope of the director's autonomy also was scaled back.
Harris on Thursday credited Vekich with restructuring the lottery and reducing its costs. "My job will be to build on those successes," he said.
The son of an Episcopalian priest, Harris was born in New Jersey but spent much of his childhood in the Philippines, where his father was a missionary. The family returned to the East Coast when Harris was in his teens. When his father moved to Mobridge, S.D., Harris transferred to Northern State University. He has been in South Dakota ever since.
Nevertheless, Harris said, he and his family are excited about the move to the Twin Cities. "We'll be closer to our favorite baseball team," he said.
Harris will be paid $114,000.