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Legislature officially kills off Missouri patronage system for license offices

This article first, appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2009 - Amid all the acrimony and rush-to-vote that always fills the final days of the Missouri Legislature, Gov. Jay Nixon paused Tuesday to praise lawmakers for their final action on a bill that overhauls the state's process for awarding contracts for the state's quasi-private system of 183 license offices.

The offices handle drivers licenses, vehicle title transactions and license plates. For decades, the contracts were doled out to allies of whoever was governor. The offices can be lucrative because of the fee tacked into each transaction to cover an office's costs and any profit. That's why the operations are typically called "fee offices.''

Under HB683, which Nixon plans to sign, the contracts will be awarded only by bid -- a process that began under former Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, after his administration came under fire for its doling out of the contracts.

But the new procedure doesn't totally get rid of politics. Under the bill, the initially bid contract is only for a year, and can be automatically renewed annually for three more years. After four years, the office contract must be rebid. The four-year maximum terms would still give each governor a chance to oversee the bid process.

And some of the 11 contracts awarded so far have gone to Nixon allies, although the Missouri Department of Revenue Department says that the point is to award contracts to those who offer the best bids. The fact that some may be allies of the governor doesn't play into it, the department says.

The bill does not give an edge to nonprofits or civic groups.

As of this week, Nixon's office said, "102 of the 183 offices have been put out for competitive bid, with 11 of the offices awarded and the bidding process closed on another 61 offices."

Only one of those 11 is in the immediate St. Louis area. The Ferguson Lions Club -- which has been spotlighted before for its operation at 728 South Florissant Road -- has retained its contract.

The Revenue Department, which handles the bids and provides limited oversight of the offices, says its goal is to get all the contracts awarded by the end of the year. That's a lot slower than the old reward-your-friends system, but department spokesman Ted Farnen says the new system is fairer.

The bid process requires that there be five weeks to accept bids for each contract. The Revenue Department generally has been been putting six contracts out for bid each week.

"I don't think it's gone slow,'' said Farnen, a former state legislator. "We want to do it right. This is the first time it's been done this way. The pace will quicken.''

Said Nixon in a statement:

“Four months after I ended the system of political patronage for fee offices, the General Assembly has ensured that its vestiges will be gone under future Governors as well. Missourians deserve to know that the management of their local fee office has been chosen based on merit and how well they serve their customers, not on political affiliation. This is a great day in making our reforms permanent.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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