JEFFERSON CITY — Partisan arguing continues to surround the selection of agents to run Missouri's motor vehicle offices despite efforts by lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon to reshape the process and remove the politics.
Missouri governors from both parties have used the driver's license offices as rewards for allies and campaign donors. Fees for processing driver's license renewals and motor vehicle registrations can bring in a lot of money in high-traffic areas.
Nixon, a Democrat, pledged in December to overhaul the system with competitive bidding for all 183 offices. Former Republican Gov. Matt Blunt started taking bids in 2006 amid repeated criticism from Democrats.
Nixon says the new system is better because it awards points based on the strength of the offer and disregards campaign donations, political connections or other vestiges of patronage. But he has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from those picked to run the offices. Since 2004, contract winners have given him five times as much money as losing bidders.
The Republican-led Legislature endorsed an open bidding system, but the Missouri Republican Party contends Democratic supporters have an unofficial edge. It claims political patronage is still deciding who runs license offices.
George Connor, chairman of the political science department at Missouri State University, said the offices are a tempting target for the out-of-power political party to use to fire up supporters because there are ample opportunities to raise the appearance of impropriety — no matter what the facts support.
"The Democrats raised this issue so strongly against Gov. Blunt, and I think the Republicans are looking at this as turnabout is fair play: 'You raised this as an issue, and there is great political gain to call you a hypocrite,'" Connor said.
So far, Nixon's administration has awarded 53 offices with points given to bidders for such things as efficiency, customer service, financial stability and past performance. Additional points are given to not-for-profit groups, minority- and women-owned businesses and those willing to return fees to the state.
All 53 license office winners outscored rival bidders, and many were significantly better. But contract winners also have donated plenty to Democratic and Republican office-seekers.
Applicants who won license office contracts donated nearly twice as much to Nixon and Democrats as they did to Republicans. Without counting campaign loans, winning applicants have given more than $39,000 to Nixon's political campaigns since 2004 and $40,000 to other state Democratic candidates. Republicans received $46,000.
Losing bidders donated three times as much to Republicans than to Democrats. They donated $104,000 to Republicans and $28,000 to Democrats — with more than one-quarter going to Nixon.
Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said license office selection is open and accountable to the public and campaign donations are not part of the calculation.
"It's not looked at," he said. "For the first time ever, it's not a factor in who gets offices."
But Republicans contend political favoritism can exist because points are awarded based on evaluations by Department of Revenue employees. Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith said that leaves room to consider political contributions.
"The governor in pontification after pontification has outlined how there is not going to be patronage in the fee office awarding," Smith said. "Yet some of the largest fee offices have been awarded to fairly large donors."
Republicans point to lucrative offices in Columbia, Lee's Summit, Springfield and St. Charles that have gone to bidders who donated thousands to Democratic candidates. But the GOP's zeal to criticize has led it to cite examples that don't always hold up.
For example, the not-for-profit Alternative Opportunities — which won contracts for two offices in Springfield and others in Joplin and Republic — has been cited as proof of political favoritism.
Organization leaders have donated more than $15,000 to various Democratic candidates. But Alternative Opportunities lost the West Plains office to bidders who donated to Blunt and Kenny Hulshof, a 2008 Republican candidate for governor.
Also attracting attention are contracts given to Republican and Democratic families with notoriety.
Relatives of a Blunt aide received a contract last month for an office in Warrenton while donating almost $10,000 to Republican candidates. And offices in St. Joseph and Lee's Summit went to James Montee, the ex-husband of the Democratic state auditor.
New contracts for driver's license offices continue to roll out, and so does the political chatter.
"The irony of this is that even though we are having open bids in the process, the argument is essentially the same," Connor said.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Chris Blank has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.