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Proposed Cuts Threaten 11 Largest Motor Vehicle Offices

March 07, 2003
By: Jason McLure
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's eleven largest motor vehicle and driver licensing would close if cuts approved by a House Appropriations Committee are finalized. The eleven offices handle licensing for about 30 percent of the state's motorists.

Revenue Department Director Carol Fischer says three offices each in St. Louis and Kansas City as well as offices in Columbia, Jefferson City, Springfield, Joplin, and St. Joseph's would be shut down.

That will mean longer lines and drives of up to an hour for Missourians looking to renew their driver's license.

"The average Missourian will see a great decrease in service," Fischer said.

The Republican controlled committee recommended that $20 million in highway funds and $1.3 million in general revenue be cut from the Revenue Department.

Fischer said that would devastate it, forcing her to lay off 400 employees, about half the department's total workforce. Those would come mostly from the Division of Motor Vehicle and Driver Licensing and from the Division of Taxation and Collection.

The cuts would affect motorists in other ways as well.

Fischer said the department would no longer be able to process driver's license suspensions. Licenses are often suspended for drivers who fail to pay speeding or parking tickets. Fischer said this will hurt towns and counties who collect on tickets because motorists will have less incentive to pay up.

House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-St. Louis County, said Fischer was cutting her department in the wrong places.

"I think it's unfortunate that the leadership of the Department of Revenue would choose to cut front-line services to the taxpayer rather than middle management in Jefferson City," Hanaway said. "[Fischer] has apparently prioritized cutting service delivery first. That's unfortunate."

But Fischer said her department has already been pared to the bone by previous rounds of budget cuts, and she has nowhere left to turn.

"We don't have people here who are drawing a salary and not doing anything," Fischer said.

Fischer said her department would also no longer be able to track down uninsured motorists, making the roads a more dangerous --and more expensive-- place for other drivers.

If the cuts are finalized, Columbia residents would have to drive to one of the Division of Motor Vehicle's contract offices in Boonville, Mexico, or Fulton to register their cars or renew their driver's licenses. Those offices weren't cut because they are run by state contractors and don't receive direct appropriations from the budget.

Elizabeth Sanders, assistant manager of the Motor Vehicle and Driver Licensing office off Nifong Boulevard in Columbia, said her office had not received word of its possible closure before Fischer's announcement.

Sanders said 16 full time staff work at the office, but refused additional comment.

Fischer also said the cuts will end up costing the state government much more than it will save. The Department of Revenue collects over 90 percent of Missouri's funds, and Fischer said that the $20 million cut in her department will cost the state $120 million in lost revenue collected.

"By cutting in DOR you are intensifying and exacerbating the budget problem," Fischer said. "It's puzzling to me that you would cut in the Department of Revenue. You don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs."

But Republicans said Fischer had not been forthcoming with information about her department thus far in the budgeting process. They've accused Gov. Bob Holden of "gagging" department heads from speaking with legislators about potential cuts in their divisions.

House Budget Committee Chairman Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, said some of the money for the Revenue Department could be restored to next year's budget later in the legislative process, but that Fischer would need to be forthcoming with information about ideas for cuts.

"They have not been cooperative," he said.

Missouri is facing a one billion dollar shortfall in the next fiscal year. Gov. Bob Holden has proposed closing that by raising $700 million in revenue through higher taxes. Republicans have vowed to balance the budget by cutting spending, but have said they would not touch "core" state government services.

Mary Still, a spokesperson for Gov. Bob Holden, said she was not surprised by the announcement.

"This is an example of the type of cuts Republicans are making to services all over the state," she said. "It's going to be an inconvenience to the citizens of Missouri. It's going to hurt safety and law enforcement. The governor has a [budget] plan that prevents cuts."