JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kenny Hulshof pledged Thursday to abolish the patronage system for state license offices and instead award them by competitive bids.
Missouri governors have long picked political supporters to run the potentially lucrative local offices that handle driver's licenses and vehicle registrations. They are called "fee offices" because the contractors get to collect a fee for each transaction.
"If elected governor, I'm going to end the political patronage system," Hulshof, who was raised in Bertrand, Mo., and graduated from Kelly High School in Benton, Mo., said. "I think the patronage system is a relic of an age gone by and should give way to a new, competitive and, candidly, a transparent plan for license offices."
Hulshof, a U.S. House member from Columbia, is one of several candidates seeking to succeed Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, who announced in January that he will not seek re-election. The other top candidates include Republican Treasurer Sarah Steelman and Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon.
Blunt already has awarded contracts for three of Missouri's 183 license offices by competitive bids. Blunt's Department of Revenue announced plans earlier this week to seek bids for two additional offices where the appointed contractors are quitting the business.
But before Blunt began awarding some offices by competitive bids, he expanded the number of politically appointed fee offices by converting around a dozen state-run offices to private contractors. He also required all the license offices to extend their working hours and submit business plans to the state.
Another trend also emerged under Blunt's administration. Instead of running their license offices themselves, some fee office agents contracted with third parties to manage the offices.
The federal prosecutor's office confirmed in October 2006 that it had investigated the awarding of license offices under Blunt's administration. But then-federal prosecutor Bud Cummins cleared Blunt's administration of wrongdoing and said Blunt was never a target nor witness in the investigation.
Hulshof said his proposal was not related to the federal investigation of Missouri's fee offices.
"To me, it's more a matter of making sure that Missourians are getting the best use of their tax money and good, efficient service," Hulshof said.
He proposed to institute a point system similar to what Blunt has used in a few cases that would award license offices based on the bidders' customer service capabilities, personnel qualifications, experience and reliability, among other factors.
Missouri Democratic House members have proposed something similar each of their past four years. But their proposals have not received committee hearings in the Republican-led chamber. The House Democrats' plan would award fee offices either to schools, charitable groups or by competitive bids.
Hulshof said schools and notfor-profit organizations could submit bids for the license offices just like private businesses, under his plan. It's possible that not-for-profit groups could receive extra points in the grading system for awarding the contracts, Hulshof said.
As governor, Hulshof could change the way the state awards license offices without needing legislation.