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House panel recommends cutting state vehicle fleet, bolstering auditor's powers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - A special Missouri House committee charged with proposing ways to cut the size of state government has come up with several ideas that range from reducing the number of state-owned vehicles to granting more power to the state auditor.

But it’s unclear if any of those proposals will have much traction when state legislators reconvene in January – particularly since Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration challenges the panel’s contention that its suggestions might save the state money.

State Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, filed a formal memo this week to House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, that reflects this summer’s work of Curtman’s panel, which traveled around the state to gather ideas from the public. One of the sessions was held in Clayton.

The suggestions cited in Curtman's memo boiled down to four primary ones:

  • Reducing or privatizing Missouri’s fleet of roughly 10,000 vehicles;
  • Using new technology to reduce the state’s software costs and modernize state government’s contracting and procurement procedures;
  • Setting up “a public-private partnership’’ to curb the costs of operating and maintaining 3,548 state-owned buildings and 521 buildings leased for state use.
  • Granting the state auditor the power “to perform a statewide comparative performance audit,’’ which Curtman contends in his memo could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Curtman cited the experience of the state of Washington, where he said that the state auditor had used similar powers to identify about $1 billion in potential savings over five years.
His memo didn't touch on other suggestions offered at the public meetings, which included cutting taxes, refusing federal grants and legalizing marijuana.

Administration: Cheaper for state to own vehicles

The state Office of Administration, the fiscal arm of Gov. Jay Nixon, challenged some of the panel’s conclusions. It emphasized that it already is striving to upgrade the state’s technology when it comes to contracting and procurement.

The office took exception to Curtman's contention that the state could save money by leasing or privatizing its vehicles. The Office of Administration said it conducted its own study a year ago that determined that ownership was the cheapest alternative.

Citing specific figures, the office said that the state’s average cost-per-mile for a typical state-owned sedan is 31.6 cents. That’s cheaper than leasing a comparable vehicle, which the agency said would cost 32.1 cents a mile or reimbursing state employees for using their own car, which would cost 37 cents a mile.

The most expensive option is to rent a car, the agency said. That costs an average of 38.7 cents a mile.

The Office of Administration added that state government has reduced the number of state-owned vehicles by almost 600 since 2010, as well as reducing the mileage-reimbursement rate for state employees. Both actions have saved the state at least $8.4 million during the last three years, the office said.

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.