In the 20 years since it began operations, the Georgia Lottery has had only two fulltime directors.
The state has been lucky that both directors had previous experience with state lotteries and knew how to run a multi-billion-dollar gaming operation.
Rebecca Paul had been in charge of the Florida Lottery before Gov. Zell Miller appointed her to start the Georgia version. She was replaced in 2003 by Margaret DeFrancisco, who had run the New York State Lottery for several years.
When DeFrancisco last summer announced her plans to retire, you would have expected the lottery board to launch a nationwide search to recruit someone with comparable experience to replace her.
That did not happen. Gov. Nathan Deal informed lottery board members that he wanted his budget director, Debbie Dlugolenski Alford, to get that job. Although one board member resigned in protest, Alford was eventually approved as the new president despite her lack of any track record in running a state lottery.
This is not an ordinary government job where you can plug in a bureaucrat without worrying about whether the agency will continue to function. A state lottery is a big-money enterprise that depends on people being persuaded to keep buying tickets every week. You need someone in charge who knows how to pick the right mix of lottery games and market those games to the folks most likely to buy tickets.
The need to maximize lottery revenues has become especially urgent in recent years because of the growing demand for HOPE scholarship grants for college students.
Deal has already signed legislation reducing HOPE benefits because the lottery, for all its success, couldn’t generate enough money to handle the growing number of students who qualify for the grants.
If lottery revenues stop growing under the new president, then Deal has created a huge political problem for himself just as he prepares to run for another term as governor in 2014.
“The public wants open, fair and transparent government practices, not cronyism and insider sweetheart deals,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson (D-Tucker). “In order to run any agency, the right person should have the appropriate skills, qualifications and background. This is true in private industry and should be true for government.”
DeFrancisco also tried to warn the lottery board and the governor about the importance of hiring a qualified person to replace her as president.
“The learning curve is too steep and the changes coming too rapidly to have a rookie at the helm of one of the world’s most successful and largest lotteries,” she said in her letter announcing her retirement.
Alford’s background is not in the lottery business but on the accounting and budgeting side of state government. She was director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget under both Sonny Perdue and Deal.
“She’s one of the most intelligent, hardest-working and committed government employees with whom I’ve ever worked,” Deal said after the appointment was finalized. “She’ll go to work every day fighting to increase revenues for our HOPE and pre-k students in Georgia.”
Let’s agree that Alford is a dedicated person who will work however many hours it takes to keep the lottery operating efficiently. Some jobs still require more than just a willingness to work long hours – they require a person who has the experience to do the job correctly.
Let’s imagine that the military put me in charge of a bomb disposal unit that was tasked with disabling booby traps and improvised explosive devices in combat zones.
I can guarantee you that I would work as hard as I could to make sure no bombs exploded. On the other hand, I do not know anything about disarming explosive devices. The chances are very good that one of them would blow up in my face.
I hope that the new lottery director has the necessary skills to persuade people to keep buying those tickets and pumping revenue into the pre-K and HOPE scholarship programs. Those are good programs that serve a lot of Georgians.
If worst comes to worst and lottery revenues should fall off, then the whole thing could blow up in Nathan Deal’s face just when he’s trying to persuade voters to elect him to another term.