No blank checks to fix MNLARS licensing, key Republican says

The transportation chair in the Minnesota House says he's deeply troubled that more money is needed to fix the state's new system for vehicle licensing and registration.

After months of problems with the system known as MNLARS, Republican state Rep. Paul Torkelson said Tuesday that he won't give a blank check to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's administration. Instead, he's proposing a $10 million allocation that would require the administration to cut an equal amount from executive branch budgets.

Two days before the launch of MNLARS last July, Torkelson visited the information technology hub where projects specialists were working. He said it looked great.

"They had computer screens all around the room," said Torkelson, R-Hanska. "They had a huge table full of people with their laptops, and they assured me that they were ready to roll this thing out and that they were ready to deal with problems as they cropped up."

But the problems piled up fast. The local offices that process license tab purchases, title transfers and other transactions reported numerous delays and inaccuracies.

The cost of developing MNLARS has already topped $90 million. The administration missed the warning signs and launched the system before it was ready, said Torkelson, who's questioning why state agencies want another $43 million to fix the problems.

"Simply put this has been a financial and technological catastrophe," he said. "Minnesotans need a functional DMV system, but we can't simply keep throwing money at the problem and putting taxpayers on the hook for the missteps that have occurred along the way."

Officials from the two state agencies in charge of MNLARS, Minnesota IT Services and the Department of Public Safety, say they need $10 million this week or they'll need to send layoff notices to staff and outside vendors working on the project.

During a House Transportation Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday, Minnesota IT Services Commissioner Johanna Clyborne warned that a delay would have consequences.

"If I have to ramp down, even for a short period of time, it will have a snowball effect on my ability to ramp back up in a timely and productive manner," she told lawmakers. "It will affect my ability to retain those with expertise needed to make the system work, and it will essentially leave the system at status quo for the time being."

MNLARS-related legislation is in the works. One proposal would compensate deputy registrars for their extra costs. Another would investigate private sector solutions for fixing the system. The Senate Transportation and Policy Finance Committee is scheduled to hold a MNLARS hearing Wednesday.

Deputy registrars and representatives of auto dealers and other affected groups testified again about the problems they've experienced with MNLARS. They've shared similar stories at previous hearings.

Kelly Davison, the owner of the deputy registrar office in Prior Lake, said she remains frustrated by system dysfunction and paperwork backlogs. She said customers want answers that she often can't provide. But Davison doesn't want the state to ramp down its repairs.

"We don't want them to cut staff because we're already having a problem with communications and getting ahold of them asking what to do in certain situations," Davison said. "So, if they cut staff it's going to be even worse."

Dayton said earlier Tuesday that he feels terrible about the MNLARS problems and he takes responsibility for them. But he warned that things will go from bad to worse if legislators don't provide the needed funds.

"If they want to have oversight, if they want to have some reasonable measure of control in addition to accountability, we can certainly talk about that," he said. "But we're at the point now where we should be past 'let's bash MNLARS and make political points.' We've got to roll up our sleeves and solve the problem."

Some lawmakers have said that heads need to roll at the state agencies responsible for MNLARS.

Dayton, though, said personnel changes have already been made.

"There are people who had responsibility for MNLARS who are not with the department any longer," he said. "I can't talk about internal investigative actions, but we take it very, very seriously. No one is more critical of MNLARS and our failure than I am."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.