Setting a fair price

Monday, May 12, 2008

By Omar Davis

There has been a great deal of discussion over the past month regarding the prices of motor-vehicle and driver's-license records the Missouri Department of Revenue is required to make available to those qualified under state and federal law.

For the past several years, the department has painstakingly evaluated and researched ways to update the antiquated technology -- which has been in place since the 1960s and 1970s -- used by the motor-vehicle and driver's-license bureaus. Much of this technology is not in use elsewhere in the United States.

The ability to efficiently serve customers and react to changing business needs and legislation becomes more challenging each years as the Department of Revenue's technology becomes further outdated. The department must move into the 21st century to provide law enforcement with more complete and timely driver information to protect the safety of motorists, to provide Missouri citizens with faster and more accurate motor-vehicle and driver's-license services including offering more services on demand, to streamline the department's operations related to driver's-license and motor-vehicle processes and transactions, and to implement legislation enacted by the General Assembly.

The department plans to increase the price to $7 per driving record to help pay for the integrated motor-vehicle and driver's-license system that is desperately needed for its continued operations. The records at issue detail the personal driver's-license and motor-vehicle information of every Missourian who has a driver's license or vehicle registered in Missouri.

The companies that are allowed to purchase this information are overwhelmingly out-of-state, for-profit entities that have received tremendous financial benefit from information the department is required to create. These same companies sell this information to Missourians at astronomically higher prices. The department's creation of this information is funded by taxpayer dollars and was not intended to help private companies increase their profit margins.

Previous administrations made incredibly poor choices when they set the price for these records at a level below what it costs taxpayers to create, maintain and provide them. Under Gov. Matt Blunt's directive to ensure that state government becomes a good steward of taxpayer dollars, the department determined that it was time to stop subsidizing the business models of out-of-state companies and require them to pay a price that more accurately reflects what it costs taxpayers to prepare and disseminate these records.

Paying for the system in this manner alleviates the need for the department to ask for money from the state's treasury, which would result in additional and unnecessary costs for Missouri taxpayers.

The companies that are complaining about the plan the most have profited handsomely for years from the department's underpriced records.

Further, despite allegations to the contrary, the department's adoption of the new fee structure was not arbitrary and was not intended to target any particular recipient of these records. This includes the news media, which -- whether Missouri drivers like it or not -- have access to their personal driver information under the law and can access this information without the driver's permission or knowledge.

For its part, the department has acted within its statutory authority to increase the per-record price for the first time since 1992. This fee increase is long overdue and only applies to those who seek this information. If you do not want it, you do not have to pay anything. But companies that seek this information must pay the increases costs to access these records. This is a fair plan for Missouri taxpayers.

Omar Davis is the director of the Missouri Department of Revenue in Jefferson City, Mo.

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