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Democrats call for changes to contracts for fee offices

March 03, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Two days after the Missouri Democratic Party requested a federal inquiry into fee office contracts awarded to two relatives of U.S. Attorney Todd Graves and to two staffers for U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., House Democrats pushed to eliminate the patronage system used to award the contracts.

The state's 171 fee offices collect money for driver's license renewal, tax payments and process motor vehicle titles and registrations, and the contracts are generally viewed as a tool governors use to reward friends.

House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said many of the Republicans had campaigned on making government more accountable and efficient and had a duty to change the way the contracts are distributed.

"Our governor took office and campaigned on the premise that he would transform government," Harris said. "This is one way, if he wants to reform or change government, that we can do it."

Although Democrats said the contracts were one of the last vestiges of the patronage system and needed to go, House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said governors are held accountable for who receives the contracts.

"If a governor wasn't putting good people in those fee offices and they were doing a bad job, it would reflect badly on him, and he would lose votes," Jetton said. "So you've got that system of accountability there to make sure that it's run in a positive way."

House Democrats are pushing a bill that would require a competitive billing process with profits from the offices directed to the school districts in the same counties as the fee offices on a per pupil basis.

Rep. Wayne Henke, D-Troy, said ultimately, the goal was to give school districts and other nonprofit entities the contracts and allow them to reap the profits of the offices.

"What better place can we put these profits except to the schools?" Henke said. "School districts are getting shorted, and I want them fully funded."

A spokesman for Gov. Matt Blunt said the fee office appointments are consistent with Missouri law and that there is no reason to make changes to the system.

"The governor, along with Missouri courts, supports the current process in place," spokesman Spence Jackson said. "He has made sweeping reforms to the fee office system and has appointed people who will do a good job."

Republicans have credited Blunt for improving service, increasing efficiency and reducing the number of errors the fee offices commit.

Jetton said he was interested in proposals to increase education funding but was concerned the idea could increase the state's involvement in the fee offices. He said the state had moved away from ownership of the offices because private ownership reduced costs.

Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said he supported competitive bidding but filed a bill to require Senate confirmation for the contracts because he said it stood a better chance for discussion.

"I don't expect the governor to sign onto a good idea like that because he's too busy handing out cash officers to the families of his friends."

Graham said that although the positions have been used by both parties, Blunt was going far beyond Democratic governors.

"It would seem wise to me for governor to want to talk to the legislators in that district before they hand these things out because maybe they know a little more about the people that they're appointing than they do."

Neither bill has been assigned to a committee.