I'll Put It Bluntly: Fee Offices Must Go

Editorial written by James Baughn on Friday, May 5, 2006

from the don't-forget-about-george-ryan dept.

Remember last year's outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court's eminent domain decision? As bad as that case was, the country is now facing the opposite problem: "reverse eminent domain" in which public property is taken for the private benefit of a select few.

It's happening all over the place. Chicago has leased one of its toll roads to a foreign corporation that will pocket future toll collections. Indiana quickly followed suit, giving up control of a critical piece of transportation infrastructure (Interstate 80) in exchange for a short-term windfall that will likely be squandered in short order.

The Federal government is getting into the act, with a proposal to sell isolated pockets of National Forest land to private parties. The revenue from this plan will be distributed to rural schools -- or, in other words, it will likely be squandered in short order.

And then there's Missouri Governor Matt Blunt. Reportedly, the FBI has launched an investigation into the way his administration has handled the operation of privately-run Missouri license bureaus. These so-called "fee offices" are managed by contractors who take a cut of the fees collected for license renewals, vehicle registrations, and other bureaucratic headaches.

Of course, the contracts -- and the beaucoup bucks they generate -- are awarded as patronage plums by each governor. Political connections are the name of the game, not business acumen or management experience. As it turns out, some of the contractors don't need business acumen or management experience -- they've allegedly outsourced the offices to a series of umbrella companies created by Blunt allies. That's the impetus of the FBI probe.

It was bad enough when Mel Carnahan and Bob Holden used fee offices as a juicy reward for their Democratic Party friends. But the current governor has pushed the envelope: he's privatized the remaining license bureaus that were still run by the Department of Revenue, including high-volume locations in St. Louis and Kansas City. Naturally, these moneymakers were then handed out to his Republican friends.

According to a Blunt spokesperson, the goal is "to improve service to the public as well as reduce costs to the taxpayers." Oh, please. How exactly do taxpayers benefit when a portion of their mandatory license fees are siphoned off by private contractors?

When news of the FBI probe first circulated, I was willing to dismiss the brouhaha as yet another example of petty politics and scandal-mongering. However, the Republican Party then turned around and did something particularly stupid -- they started issuing press releases accusing the Carnahan and Holden administrations of mismanaging the license bureaus during their terms.

This is the classic "But everybody does it!" argument, employed as a kind of diversionary tactic. But diversion is only necessary when your side is up to no good. It is, in effect, an admission of guilt on the part of the GOP.

The Republicans are right, though. Everybody does it! But that certainly doesn't make it right. In fact, that's a pretty damn good reason for restoring the license bureaus back into the hands of the Department of Revenue and eliminating political calculations from the system.

DoR is far from perfect -- no bureaucracy is ever perfect -- but the current system is clearly broken. Privatizing critical government functions does not help anybody, except for a privileged few who happen to support the right administration at the right time.