State Printing Contract Draws Opponents' Fire; Ponte Vedra Company Criticized the Job That Is Causing Such Furor? It's Driver's License Handbooks

Article excerpt

Byline: MATT DIXON

You could file this one under "only in politics."

The former president of the National Rifle Association has vocally termed a bill filed by a pro-gun state senator - and gun shop owner - "wrong" and said she is actively working for its defeat.

So, how does the bill affect guns? It doesn't.

The bill, SB 2342, would give local businessman Ken Underwood the inside track on keeping a state contract that gives him the exclusive rights to print driver's license handbooks. Under the current terms, Underwood prints the handbooks at no charge to the state and in return gets to place advertisements in it for his driver safety school - a Ponte Vedra Beach-based company called National Safety Commission. No other driving schools receive advertisements in the handbook.

After the state told Underwood late last year that it would not renew his contract when it expires this Dec. 31, state Sen. Carey Baker, who owns a Central Florida gun shop, filed a bill on behalf of a lobbyist for Underwood's company that would help steer the contract back to him.

Marion Hammer, former president of the NRA and a Florida resident, has come out in staunch opposition to the bill after she tried to get a driver safety handbook for her 15-year-old grandson and was sent to the Underwood company's Web site and asked for personal information.

"I clicked a link to get the handbook and it dumped me onto Underwood's site," said Hammer, who called her opposition to the bill personal. "It was just full of ads. I thought someone must have hijacked the state's site."

Underwood says the contract has saved taxpayers more than $4 million, a number unconfirmed by the state, at a time when budgets are tight.

"The only controversy has been raised by my competitors," Underwood said.

Citing, in part, the controversy that has arisen from its contract with Underwood, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is opposing the Baker bill. In January, the department reached a settlement agreement after The Florida Providers of Traffic Safety, a group of 15 Underwood competitors, threatened to sue over his agreement with the state.

As part of that settlement, the department agreed to not renew Underwood's contract.

Baker, R-Eustis, said he was unaware of much of the controversy surrounding the contract.

"There are some issues that I was not totally aware of," he said. "I was just trying to save the taxpayers money. That's really all my goal was."

As originally authored, his bill would have handed the contract back to Underwood. An amendment has since been added by Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, that would require the motor vehicle department to "solicit proposals" from any company willing to print the handbook free of cost. …