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Local Company Part of State Driver Handbook Controversy

A bill that initially would have granted the right to print the state handbook for teens learning to drive – and with it the right to advertise for driving schools in that book – to a particular controversial company may be amended Tuesday in a way that could open up the printing of the book to other companies.

Pretty much every teen in Florida who is studying to take their driver's test uses the handbook to get ready for it. Currently, Ponte Vedra-based National Safety Commission prints and distributes the book at no cost to the state. NSC does that, because it makes money off the books by advertising in them for NSC-owned driving schools.

But the company was set to lose its contract – competitors would say lucrative contract, while NSC points out that it doesn't get a dime from the state - at the end of this year as part of a settlement of a lawsuit filed by the competitors. That would have meant the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles taking over printing of the book. And that would have cost the state money – or forced lawmakers to push that cost onto kids studying to take the test, leading to legislation (SB 2342) to force DHSMV to keep the agreement with NSC and its owner, Ken Underwood.

That raised the ire of the competitors who don't get students steered to their driving schools by the state's handbook.

“I'm all about a competitive market, I'm not good with government steering Floridians (to a particular school),” said Kim Jowell, executive director of Suncoast Safety Council in Clearwater. “Even if we didn’t have a stake in this issue, this bill is just poor government policy – why should any state entity be removed of their authority - of their right - to be prudent and review other vendors?”

On Monday, backers of the legislation, including a representative of NSC, said they'd offer an amendment Tuesday in the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee that would allow for the agency to open up the contract for the printing of the book to anyone with a certain amount of sales experience, as long as they continue to sell ads in the book. The amendment also would allow for Highway Safety to give NSC the first right of refusal and keep the contract, but a lobbyist for the company said NSC, with its contentious history, doesn't expect that to happen.

If the bill is amended on Tuesday as backers say they intend, and if it passes, it would likely open the door to other companies being able to bid to print the books – although the last time it was opened to bidders, NSC was the only company that filed a bid. But since then, the company showed how money could be made off the agreement by steering teens to its schools through the ads in the books.

The agreement has been the subject of controversy for years. Legislators a few years ago passed legislation to end the agreement with NSC and have the books printed in house, but it was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist. That led to the litigation, in which other traffic schools represented by the Florida Providers for Traffic Safety sued over the agreement, which eventually ended in the settlement earlier this year. That settlement specified that the contract with NSC won't be renewed Dec. 31, 2010.

Florida Providers for Traffic Safety – representing NSC competitors - supports a fee to traffic school providers to underwrite the cost of producing, printing and delivering the handbooks – but without advertising. Under the amendment that is likely to come up in the Senate committee on Tuesday, the books would still have be open to advertisers. Presumably, that would allow NSC to continue to be able to advertise in the books.

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who didn't return calls seeking comment.

Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles spokesman Dave Westberry said the agency was waiting to see what passes and would do whatever the Legislature requires.

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