Lawmakers pitch license office reform

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The proposal is similar to a bill Democrats pushed the last two legislative sessions.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A group of House Republicans announced a plan Monday to overhaul the state driver's license office system, which critics have said is marred by cronyism.

The proposal by the five lawmakers -- none of whom is part of the House leadership -- is similar to a bill their Democratic colleagues have pushed the last two legislative sessions. All of the plans seek to overhaul a system of issuing licenses and plates through potentially lucrative privatized offices often run by those loyal to the political party in power.

The latest proposal would require contracts for the offices to be awarded only to local governments, chambers of commerce or other not-for-profit organizations; that those organizations could not allow a third party to oversee management; that employees of the operations be ineligible for salaries above $100,000 annually; and that the state auditor be given the authority to evaluate the offices.

"This is a system that's been passed down from generation to generation," said freshman Rep. Ryan Silvey of Kansas City. "The history is full of changes that should have been made."

Democrats made an issue of the license offices after Republican Gov. Matt Blunt took office and privatized the 11 remaining state-run offices, including large ones in Kansas City and St. Louis. For decades, license office contracts have been seen as rewards to party loyalists by governors from both parties.

The Cape Girardeau license bureau is run by the Southeast Missouri State University Foundation. The foundation also operated the Jackson bureau until last year, when Blunt named Cape Girardeau lawyer Gerry Jones to run the office.

Operators of the offices charge a fee for each transaction, but Lowell Pearson, deputy director of the Department of Revenue, said it was wrong to think of the offices as "cash cows" in need of massive reform.

"We would disagree with the representatives' assessment that the system is broken," he said. "We don't disagree that the system could be made better."

Similar opposition was voiced by those awarded contracts to run the offices, including David Jerome, a Republican supporter who operates a license office in Neosho.

"I think it has worked for a long time, and I think it is working now," he said.

Blunt did not endorse the lawmakers' proposal Monday, instead saying that notable improvements already have been made in the license offices, including longer hours.

He said not-for-profit groups should get the contracts when they're the best candidate, but not all the time. Currently, 37 of 183 offices are run by charities and not-for-profit groups.

Blunt also noted the state plans to competitively bid a license office soon, and said that should provide guidance on the best way to manage license offices. But he said it's easier to ensure good customer service when an agent serves at his pleasure rather than through a state contract.

The backers of the plan -- who made appearances in Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis on Monday -- were careful in their presentation, particularly since their position falls in line with politicians on the other side of the aisle.

"We're not putting blame on past administrators," said Rep. Mark Wright, of Springfield. "There shouldn't be any blame level on the current administration."

Rep. Wayne Henke, D-Troy, applauded the move by Republicans, calling it a courageous stand against a long-abused system. The House minority leader, Jeff Harris of Columbia, said it was good to see a change in position among Republicans.

"During the legislative session when we had a chance to act, Republicans showed little interest in the issue," Harris said. "Hopefully their newfound zeal for reform will not evaporate when the elections are over and the opportunity to fix this broken system is again at hand."

The AP reported in late April that the FBI was investigating the management arrangements for some offices under Blunt's administration. Agents asked questions about a relatively new trend in which fee offices were awarded to contractors, who then were approached by politically connected people to manage them.

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