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Nixon vetoes bill to hike fees for driver's licenses, defends new plane

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: While a Missouri House panel was continuing its probe of the state’s driver's license division, Gov. Jay Nixon was in St. Louis announcing that he’d vetoed a bill to double the fees charged by the private “fee offices’’ that give out the licenses.

The governor said Wednesday that it was unfair to ask Missourians to pay $22 million more each year in additional license-related fees but get no additional service in return.

The bill, SB51, “demands that our citizens pay more but fails to promise that in return, government will actually do more,” Nixon said at a news conference in the state’s Wainwright office building downtown.  “It raises the price tag of government, while doing nothing to improve the product. It’s taking money for the purpose of taking it, and that’s not a Missouri value.”

The General Assembly had approved the measure at the behest of some operators of the state’s 180-plus fee offices, which handle the state’s driver's licenses, vehicle titles and tags, and other related services.

A fee is charged for each, generally in the range of $3 or less, which is then used to pay the office’s expenses. Some fee-office operators said they were operating at a loss and needed more money.

SB51 increased the fees and added new ones. Nixon cited, for example, a provision to charge $2 every time someone in the St. Louis area went online to check if his or her vehicle had passed the auto inspection. He noted that no such charge was added to fee offices in 110 other counties in the state.

Nixon emphasized that the office contracts are awarded by competitive bid. Until about eight years ago, when the process was changed, the contracts were given to allies of the governor.

“All of these offices’ contracts have been competitively bid,” the governor said. “Obviously, you had a lot of bidders who wanted to do this. To come back in afterward and say…’By the way, give us an extra $22 million by doubling the cost of driver's licenses,’ doesn’t seem like the way to move forward.”

The governor suggested instead that the offices consider ways to operate more efficiently.

The governor’s news conference coincided with a meeting in Jefferson City by a legislative panel set up to investigate why the state’s driver's license division, part of the state’s Department of Revenue, had been copying documents such as birth certificates and marriage licenses that would-be license holders brought into fee offices to verify their identities. The copies then were retained in files.

Such an identification requirement was approved by the General Assembly in 2005, but the body then passed a bill in 2009 – signed by Nixon – that barred the state from complying with the federal REAL ID mandate that imposes similar requirements for verifying people’s identities when they obtain driver's licenses.

Some Republican legislators became furious when the license division also retained copies of concealed-carry permits when the holders brought them in so that an endorsement could be added to their driver's license. Amid the furor, the division stopped making such copies, but the legislative outrage continues over the retention of copies of other personal documents.

As a result, the General Assembly approved a Department of Revenue budget that slashes the budget of the license division by one-third, in hopes of pressuring the governor, a Democrat, to change the state’s license process. The governor has said that layoffs will be necessary to comply with the budget restrictions.

Nixon said Wednesday that he had yet to act on the budget bill containing the Department of Revenue’s budget; he sought to separate that issue from Wednesday’s veto of the proposed fee hike.

He also made no comment about the all-day hearing underway Wednesday in Jefferson City.

Defends plane purchase cited in Schweich’s audit

Nixon did, however, defend the Missouri Highway Patrol’s purchase in December 2012 of a new passenger plane costing $5.6 million and used primarily by him.

State Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican, issued an audit Tuesday that faulted the patrolfor failing to “perform a formal written analysis to justify the need to purchase an additional airplane or to purchase a new airplane instead of a much less expensive used airplane.”

Schweich noted that state government, overall, already owns five passenger planes and “usage records indicate the state was underutilizing its existing airplanes before the latest purchase.”

Nixon referred specific audit questions to the Highway Patrol, but he did note that the patrol is charged by law with transporting and protecting the governor.

His predecessor, Republican Matt Blunt, had attracted criticism because he opted to travel solely on private aircraft owned by political allies. Blunt cited the savings, although critics said the practice allowed him to travel without any public record of where he went or who accompanied him. Blunt used a state plane during his last year in office.

Nixon, who used state planes as attorney general, previously has noted that public records are available regarding the cost of his flights on state aircraft.

In any event, the governor on Wednesday defended his travel and its costs. 

“It’s very important for the governor to get around the state,” Nixon said. “It’s really important that you get out there. I’ve said before that I’m the governor of every county of the state.”

Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, went further, saying the audit highlighted the “irresponsible and incredible waste incurred by the recent purchase of a luxury airplane to ferry Gov. Nixon and his administrative staff on trips back and forth across the nation. Today's audit results only further confirm the Nixon administration's misplaced priorities.”

Jones compared the purchase to Nixon’s recent veto of a proposed tax-cut bill sought by the GOP and business leaders, which the speaker said “would return some of our state's surplus to the pockets of hard-working Missourians."

Nixon retorted that the vetoed bill also would have raised state sales taxes by $200 million by eliminating the state’s exemption on prescription drugs. He accused Jones of using the plane issue to change the subject.

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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