JEFFERSON CITY — A third of Missouri's 183 "fee" offices have gone out for bid and many are attracting multiple bidders.
It's the first time the state has used a competitive process to determine who will operate the offices where residents can renew their driver's licenses or get new vehicle tags. Historically, governors handed out the jobs to political supporters.
Donald White is an example of the new type of fee office operator.
The real estate broker and businessman has never given money to Gov. Jay Nixon or been an active member of the Democratic Party. But he won the bid for the Hannibal office, beating out two other bidders, including longtime Democratic operative John Yancey, who ran the office under previous Democratic governors.
"I did some research and it sounded like a good business opportunity," said White, who was awarded the Hannibal bid March 16. "The information I had was that it was to be nonpolitical. I'm satisfied that I got fair consideration."
Operators charge fees for drivers licenses and other services, keeping the profits. The largest offices can generate more than $500,000 a year — money that in years past invariably went back to governors' re-election campaigns.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon announced when he came into office in January an "end to the patronage system." His Republican predecessor, Matt Blunt, had started the bidding process on a limited basis.
With a Democrat in the governor's office, Republican lawmakers are more willing this session to change the system they had benefited from for four years.
About 60 of the offices have been put out for bid with the remainder expected by the end of the year. Most have drawn multiple bidders with the first two offices awarded, in Hannibal and Moberly, going to the bidder scoring the highest.
The new system resembles the state's other competitive bidding processes, said Department of Revenue director Karen King Mitchell.
Bidders submit 50 or more pages that detail their business plan, which is evaluated by the Office of Administration and scored by a Department of Revenue team.
Mitchell makes the final decisions, which are then posted online for all to see. She said she favors formalizing the process Nixon started in January.
"There just isn't any reason for them to be any different than any other bidding process in the state," Mitchell said.
There are critics of the new system with the biggest outcry coming from Yancey, who lost out on the Hannibal fee office and is a longtime Nixon ally.
"I don't like it," said Yancey, 77, who said he supports the old patronage system. "If I had the opportunity to have my picture on the wall in 183 offices across the state, I'd want to know that the people running the show had my philosophy."
He said he was particularly upset about the process because the former Republican holder of the Hannibal office shut it down shortly after Nixon won election.
Yancey ran the fee office for 12 years under Democratic governors and had been a faithful campaign donor.
"The way the system works is, 'I'll help you and you help me,'" Yancey says. "If I were Jay Nixon, I'd be covering my backside."
Ken Kielty, who participated in the old system and the new, said he likes the new system better. He's waiting to see if he won his bid for the fee office in St. Charles, which he ran under previous Democratic governors.
"It's very professional and aboveboard," Kielty said. "If we're fortunate enough to get the bid, it will be based on merit."
Some of the bidders are the typical Democratic operatives who ran the fee offices previously. In some cases, the Republicans who had the contracts under Blunt have also bid. There are nonprofit groups, such as the Ferguson Lions Club, and a group called Faith First Enterprises, which has bid on three offices.
Mitchell said she hopes lawmakers pass a law that formalizes the process and takes politics out of the equation for good.
"We'd like some guarantee that the program will be carried out in the future," Mitchell said.