Lawmakers blow past Dayton deadline for more MNLARS funding

Gov. Mark Dayton walks out of the courtroom after oral arguments concluded.
Gov. Mark Dayton walks out of the courtroom in the Capitol after oral arguments concluded in Minnesota Supreme Court in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, Aug. 28, 2017.
Leila Navidi | Star Tribune pool via AP 2017

Repairs to Minnesota's troubled vehicle licensing and registration system could start slowing down soon, after lawmakers failed to come through with $10 million that Dayton Administration officials said they urgently needed.

Officials for Minnesota IT Services and the Department of Public Safety said back in January that they needed quick approval of their $10 million funding request or there would be consequences. They said the money was needed by March 1 or they'd be forced to give 30-day notice of layoffs to outside contractors.

The new commissioner of Minnesota IT Services, Johanna Clyborne, told members of the House state government committee that she will have to ramp down the repair work on the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS).

"Without the required funding, it will have a crippling effect on the progress we are making," Clyborne said.

Lawmakers grilled Clyborne Thursday for nearly two hours about past MNLARS failures, before she joined the agency. The troubled upgrade has already cost taxpayers $90 million.

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said he was shocked that the system went online last July without more testing.

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"I guess that's probably one of my biggest points of disappointment is that there was a tremendous and catastrophic lack of leadership on this project," Nash said.

The committee took no action on the funding request. Neither did the full House and Senate during floor sessions later in the day.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he thinks a bill might be ready next week to provide a lesser amount of funding. He declined to give specifics. Despite the deadline, Gazelka said he thinks there's still time to act.

"I think if there's a sense that there's progress from everyone, I think that they can at least give some sort of assurance to the folks that they're still going to be there," he said.

Other lawmakers are worried about the delay.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL- Minneapolis, said it's time for everyone to focus on getting the system to work.

"We only have one Driver and Vehicle Services. There's only one place people can go to get their titles and their license tabs and their transfers and all that," Dibble said. "We've got to start fixing it. Anyone who's not part of solving the problem is part of the problem."

In the House, Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, tried unsuccessfully to suspend the rules and take up emergency legislation to provide the $10 million. His motion failed. Hansen said the delay will have consequences.

"There's a cost to inaction. There's a cost to inaction as those professionals leave and go somewhere else," Hansen said.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, the chair of the House transportation committee, said he wants MNLARS to work. But he said quickly throwing another $10 million at it doesn't make sense.

"The people that have been contacting me by email certainly are not asking for us to spend more money at this time on this program, quite the opposite," he said. "I've had many, many contacts and all of them say 'what are you doing? Why would you consider spending more money on something that doesn't work, that's broken?'"