TALLAHASSEE — The rocky relationship between the state and an entrepreneur who scored an exclusive deal to publish the official driver safety handbook may not be over.
For five years, Ponte Vedra Beach businessman Ken Underwood has held an unusual contract with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. In return for not charging to print millions of driver safety handbooks, he advertises his driver education school, the National Safety Commission, in the handbook.
The state told Underwood it would not renew his contract when it expires Dec. 31. But Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, has filed a bill at the behest of the vendor's lobbyist that would at least give him a chance to rebid on the deal. The highway safety agency doesn't back the legislation.
Baker acknowledged he filed the bill at the request of Underwood's lobbyist, Christopher Moya, and said he did so to help save taxpayers' money. But he said he did not fully realize the controversy involving the deal.
"This issue carries baggage," Baker said. "What I want to do needs to be good public policy."
One of Underwood's competitors, Kim Jowell of the Suncoast Safety Council in Clearwater, has been writing to senators, warning them that Baker's bill interferes with a court-approved settlement between Underwood's firm and its rivals. A 2006 audit faulted the Underwood deal, noting that one of his lobbyists was the wife of the then-executive director of the highway safety agency that approved it.
Moya said the contract has saved the state significant costs, and with the current budget crunch, the agency can't afford to print its own handbook. He proposes that if the state continues to seek printing proposals, it give Underwood first refusal rights.
"It's not about awarding it to one sponsor. It's about saving the taxpayers' money," Moya said, noting that Underwood won an award for saving tax dollars.
The Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee is scheduled to consider Baker's bill (SB 2432) Tuesday, and he said he will try to amend it to ensure that all driver safety vendors are treated equally.
The Senate's independent staff, analyzing Baker's original version, used striking language in describing how it would flout Florida bidding laws: "The bill mandates a contract with a vendor without award by competitive solicitation, contrary to the requirements" of state law.
Baker's bill was pulled from last week's agenda at the last minute, and he said he probably didn't have the votes to pass it. The committee, chaired by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, includes a vocal critic of the Underwood contract: Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
To complicate matters, National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer has joined the opposition, describing a frustrating experience with the Web site as she tried to get a handbook for her grandson, step one in becoming licensed to drive, the rite of passage for every Florida teen.
She said she tried three times to download the handbook, but ran into software problems with the site. Still, she said, "they had my personal information and in less than 10 minutes after I left their Web site, I started getting solicitation e-mails."
In an e-mail, Hammer wrote: "From what I can see, this bill is solely to protect one vendor," Hammer wrote in an e-mail. For the state to steer unsuspecting online consumers to ads for Underwood's school "literally makes the state of Florida look like a red light district," she said.