We’ve been watching the building friction between the legislature and the Department of Revenue for about a month now and chronicling it on our newscasts and in our stories on Missourinet.com. We cannot explain why the ongoing drama reminds us of something Jeanne Eagels said. But it does.
Jeanne Eagles was an actress from Missouri who died when she was 35 in 1929. Some say she was the Marilyn Monroe of her era, a forerunning of Jean Harlow, and the greatest stage actress of her generation. But she drank to excess, used serious drugs, and became the first actress nominated posthumously for an Oscar. She supposedly once said, … “Never deny. Never explain. Say nothing and become a legend.”
We don’t know, of course, if this bonfire fanned by the legislature and the Department of Revenue will become legendary but it certainly is providing entertaining fodder for political junkies as well as for legislative Republicans. Democrats are laying low. And Governor Nixon certainly isn’t volunteering any comments about his tax-collecting agency.
From our observation point, this appears to be the biggest bob-and-weave exercise of the Nixon administration since DNR’s bumbling on Lake of the Ozarks water quality tests shortly after the governor began his first term.
Let’s see if we can summarize and overly-simplify the events leading up to today. For purposes of over-simplification, we’re skipping some things.
Congress passed the Real ID Act in 2005. It went into effect in May, 2008. It was enacted when there was much concern about illegal immigration and the possibility that terrorists might be getting into this country too easily. Bush II was still in office. Our troops were in Iraq. Homeland Security was telling us the terrorist level was at yellow or red. TSA people at airports every day started confiscating thousands of little Swiss Army pocket knives that had toothpicks, tweezers and little bitty scissors in them.
There are many words that can describe the Real ID Act and its implementation. Many of you probably have your favorites. Please do not tell us what they are in the “comments” section of this entry. This is a family publication.
Anyway, the administration of this law has been a mess. Less than two years after the law went into effect, the feds announced enforcement would be postponed for two years, until December, 2009. Thirteen months later, enforcement was pushed back until 2011 because the states weren’t embracing it. It was about that same time that Homeland Security put out a bulletin on implementation of the driver’s license and non-driver’s ID provisions of the act.
Legislatures in two dozen states, including Missouri, have told the federal government, in so many words, to take the Real ID act and shove it. The last we heard, sixteen other states were considering the same message. The Missouri legislature passed its anti-Real ID bill —by a narrow margin in the House and unanimously in the Senate–in 2009 and Governor Nixon signed it on July 13, an action that causes some brow-furrowing in the current situation because his administration’s Revenue Department has put itself in pretty deep doo-doo as far as the Republican-dominated legislature is concerned.
A few months ago the Revenue Department put out a news release about this wonderful new driver’s license it was going to start issuing. It was going to provide much greater protection against identification theft. It was going to make it much harder for underage drinkers to get their booze. the drawback was that we wouldn’t be able to get our new license at the local office while we waited, as we had done for many years. A private company with sophisticated equipment to make these special licenses had been hired to do that work. But we now know the department wasn’t giving us the whole story when it told us how marvelous this new driver’s license would be.
It appears, in retrospect and after listening to legislative criticism, that the Department of Revenue was deceiving Missourians about what it was up to. Some members of the legislature are pretty unforgiving about it. The legislative critics we’ve talked to or who have spoken out on the floors of the House and Senate have said that the department has evaded, hidden, and misled them about what it’s really doing.
We cover the state Senate, so we’re going to be talking about the discussions on that side of the dome. But several House members also are agitated by all of this.
Early this year some legislators started hearing that department license fee offices in their districts were requiring people to take bunches of personal information with them when they went to get their driver’s licenses, non-driver’s state identification cards, or conceal and carry permits. Birth certificates. Marriage licenses. Divorce papers. Name-change documents. They were told the documents were being scanned by the people in those offices and the scans were being kept. Lawmakers were being told by their local Revenue Department offices that Homeland Security was behind it. Oh, no, it’s not being done for Homeland Security and the documents are not being saved, said department officials. Then in a later meeting with Senate Appropriations chairman Kurt Shaefer, there was an admission that the department had gotten a grant from Homeland Security, an admission that constituted the dangling of a red cloth in front of the legislative bull. The image that is increasingly coming to mind is of the Revenue Department dashing down the strees of Pamplona on the Missouri with those legislative bulls in hot pursuit.
Late last week, an accusation came from Schaefer that the department is replacing driver’s license cameras in its fee offices with high-tech Homeland Security cameras that not only take a picture, but also do biometric measurements of the subject’s features. Those costly purchases were never included in any appropriations request, which rankles legislative budget watchers who admit the department didn’t ask for any state money because it had a Homeland Security grant to make these purchases. But the fact that the department didn’t at least tell legislators about the program has some of these folks fuming. And it might not be wise to make the people who approve your budget any pricklier than they can be.
We have seen the value of the kind of information those biomedical measurements obtained by these new cameras can provide. Several years ago after a big brush fire had scorched the battlefield at the Little Big Horn, archaeologists discovered some exposed human remains from the Custer fight of 1876, including partial facial bones. By matching the dimensions of those skeletal parts to photographs of soldiers who fought there, scientists were able to properly identify who those people were. And that technology is used in forensic investigations in other ways, too. But do Mr. and Mrs. Joe Bluecollar need to have driver’s licenses with pictures taken with cameras that map the structures of their faces? Is the Highway Patrolman who stops Joe for speeding going to make him get out of his car so the trooper can measure the distance between his eyes to make sure that it’s really Joe?
Senator Shaefer sent the department a subpoena a few days ago demanding documents that Homeland Security says the state filed late last year, several weeks before the first denial that the department had climbed under the covers with that agency. As part of his letter, he told the department not to get rid of the cameras it had been using because the legislature might reverse these actions one way or another.
Before the legislature adjourned for this week, Schaefer said he had learned from department sources that the cameras on which the state had spent quite a bit of taxpayers money had been given to the company that makes the licenses and they were being destroyed. He wants to know what law allows the department to dispose of—and authorize destruction of—state property. Why weren’t these items handled through the office of surplus property, the way thousands of other outdated state equipment is disposed of. He and the Senate leadership suggest the department has broken more laws by improperly disposing of state property. The depart has until 4:45 p.m. tomorrow (Tuesday) to come across with the material Schaefer wants.
So the plot has been thickening and it threatens to get worse. Senate floor leader Ron Richard, who decides what bills are debated, has promised Schaefer that the Department of Revenue budget for the next fiscal year will not be debated in the Senate until Schaefer gets satisfactory answers. That is an amount of $470 million dollars in the budget suggested in January by Governor Nixon, that, incidentally, begins the budget narrative with, “Governor Nixon is a firm believer that by working together there is no limit to what can be accomplished.”
We talked with one Democrat of prominence who wonders if this isn’t just Republicans attacking a Democratic administration while also continuing to emphasize that Missouri can decide not to follow federal laws it doesn’t want to follow. And it’s been suggested Shaefer might be building some crusading credentials for an Attorney General run in 2016. Anyone who has been a political reporter very long knows that Capitols are petrie dishes where speculation and innuendo and suspicion are grown. So it’s only natural that they enter into various evaluations of the figures in this drama.
But the Nixon administration is not helped by its track record of trying to control information reaching the public. We contacted the department spokesman (we’ve never been allowed to speak to the director) by phone and e-mail after the Senate adjourned Thursday to see if we could get a differing view of all of this. Rather than take any questions about the latest accusations from Schaefer, he sent a copy of a court order dismissing a Stoddard County complaint against the department’s information-gathering. We sent back a note saying thanks, but it wasn’t very responsive.
So Ted Farnen emailed us a new message: “As the Department previously informed the Senate Appropriations Committee staff, the equipment being removed from fee offices is not state property. As provided for in the contract, the contractor retains ownership of the equipment.”
My mother used to say, “that’s as clear as mud.” So back went another email asking for clarification about the cameras not being state property with ownership being retained by “the contractor.” Are the cameras going back to the company that–based on the response–apparently just leased them to the state, or to the new contractor, Morphotrust? As of this posting there has been no further communication from Farnen.
So here’s the bottom line, based on decades as a reporter watching everything from tempestuous political teapots to impeachments and removals, and indictments and imprisonments:
Nothing defuses a touchy issue faster than honesty. Nothing stops witch hunts, real or imagined, quicker than candor. The wind of evasion only fans the flames higher.
Jeanne Eagles said, “Never deny. Never explain.” And that’s okay if you live your life in the fantasy world of stage and screen. In the real world where words like “transparency” seem to be increasingly too easy to mouth, and where public accountability hides behind political stone walls, the Eagels philosophy can only make some people angry and make others look bad.
Reporters who’ve been in the biz very long have seen this kind of thing time and again. And we wonder why the people who should learn lessons from these experiences never seem to catch on.