The Dayton administration says it needs $10 million. Fast.
Otherwise, by week’s end the state will begin laying off computer programmers and cancel business contracts. And Minnesota’s trouble-plagued computer system for issuing motor vehicle license plates, stickers, registrations and titles will continue its slow and inaccurate work.
After his committee discussed the issue with those affected Tuesday, Feb. 27, House Transportation Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanksa, said getting $10 million is “above my pay grade,” adding that Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders need “to work this out.”
The computer system known as MNLARS launched last July 24, replacing a 30-year-old system, and immediately Minnesotans discovered delays, mistakes and often an inability to even complete a transaction. State officials admit it rolled out before it was ready.
Amber Backhaus of the Minnesota Automobile Association told Torkelson’s committee that things have not improved much in the past several months.
“Steps forward in the system’s development seem to be accompanied by steps backwards,” Backhaus said.
Other testifiers agreed, saying that once one problem is fixed, it often returns in the next software update.
The dealers’ group has been especially critical of MNLARS. Its most recent publication for members featured a cover showing a large office, supposedly MNLARS, with chimpanzees at the desks.
“Nine years and $93 million,” the story accompanying the cover read. “Those are two statistics the everyone really need to know. That’s what it took for the state of Minnesota to build a 21st century motor vehicle registration system that doesn’t work.”
The $10 million Dayton administration officials say is needed this week must be followed by $33 million to finish making fixes.
In the meantime, Information Technology Commissioner Johanna Clyborne, on the job two weeks, said even a short loss of funds will mean work to fix the system will pause while remaining workers spend full time just keeping it running. Computer programmers will have no problem finding new jobs, she said, leaving the state scrambling when funds begin flowing again.
Clyborne also said she requested an audit and investigations into what went wrong with the new software.
While Torkelson said he thought Dayton might be able to move $10 million from another budget, Clyborne said that has been investigated and any such transfer needs legislative approval.
In the Senate, the transportation chairman says MNLARS leadership “has to be replaced.”
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said the leaders have failed Minnesota.
Newman does not want to hand more money over to the agencies responsible for MNLARS before leaders are replaced. Without new leaders, he added, the problems would not be solved.
MNLARS officials say they need until this summer to “resolve defects and gaps,” but all software work may not be done until the fall of 2019.
MNLARS lists 18 major issues that need to be fixed. They include issues that greatly slow down the registration system, some taxes and fees are charged incorrectly, some vehicle titles simply cannot be issued and a vehicle may improperly show as impounded.
The good news is that the state gradually is catching up.
Clyborne and Public Safety Commission Mona Doman told the House that since coming online last summer, MNLARS has processed more than 4.4 million title and registration transactions. Through Feb. 21, the backlog has been reduced by more than 40 percent, the commissioners said, but remains at 215,000.
“While progress is being made, we know that significant work remains ahead of us to get the MNLARS system where it needs to be,” the commissioners wrote in a letter to House members. “We have made significant leadership changes on the project to ensure effective management of the IT team, enhanced stakeholder engagement and improved inter-agency and external coordination and communication.”
MNLARS, short for Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, was established to replace an aging computer system.
They want $43 million for staff, contractors and other needs for the information technology and Public Safety departments to fix the problems. Of that, $10 million is needed right way, MNLARS officials say.
MNLARS workers have built up more than 9,000 in overtime.