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Emergency MNLARS dollars making way through the House, but officials say not fast enough

MN.IT Commissioner Johanna Clyborne responds to a question during March 6 testimony on HF3147, presented by Rep. Dave Baker, right, which would provide $10 million to MNLARS. Photo by Paul Battaglia

A House committee has approved millions of dollars in emergency funding to fix the state’s troubled vehicle license and registration system — with some strings attached.

State officials have asked for $10 million in extra funding, saying it is needed to keep staff and contractors working on fixing the system, known as MNLARS, that has caused headaches for registrars, auto dealers and vehicle owners across the state since it debuted last July.

Republican lawmakers, however, have been unwilling to rush additional funding toward the project. State officials had sought the immediate extra funding — part of a larger $43 million supplemental request — by March 1, saying they would be forced to begin laying off workers without it by the end of the month.

On Tuesday, the House Transportation Finance Committee OK’d an amended version of HF3147, sponsored by committee chair Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska), to appropriate $10 million from the Driver Services and Vehicle Services Operating Account in Fiscal Year 2018 for ongoing work on MNLARS.

The catch? It would require executive branch agencies to reduce General Fund spending by an identical $10 million in other, unrelated areas, and would require MN.IT and the Department of Public Safety to meet strict performance measures— some of which state officials say are onerous and could be difficult to quantify.

“Money is being moved through the process,” said Rep. Dave Baker (R-Willmar), who presented Torkelson’s bill. He said MN.IT officials should alert contractors to whom they’ve given layoff notices that funds are on the way — albeit more slowly than agency leaders had wanted. “That’s a big win.”

The bill now heads to the House State Government Finance Committee, and could have additional stops before it can reach the House Floor. There is no Senate companion.

The committee rejected along party lines an amendment offered by Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls) that would have immediately allowed the agencies to use $10 million in existing Driver and Vehicle Services reserve funds. That approach would have sped the process of appropriating funds to the agencies to continue work on ironing out the system’s many glitches, he said.

“We have this urgency, and I don’t see the urgency on the other side [of the aisle] to fix this,” Hornstein said.

Performance measures

The state has already sunk more than $90 million into the MNLARS project, which was supposed to modernize and streamline a decades-old computer system used to issue things like vehicle titles and license tabs.

That price tag — and the system’s disastrous rollout — led to the inclusion of performance measures and required progress reports. The amended bill would direct Minnesota Management and Budget to develop a project schedule and performance metrics to track the project’s continued progress. And it would require monthly reports to be delivered to the Legislature, as well as mandate that those reports be personally certified by the commissioners of Minnesota Management and Budget and MN.IT.

DFLers said the measures are meant to further punish state agencies that have mishandled the MNLARS project, and that the bill creates unnecessary delays that could bring work on fixing the system grinding to a halt.

“Delaying this longer is creating a bigger problem,” said Rep. Michael Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park).

Republicans have said that, in exchange for millions more in funding, they simply want more accountability and assurances that the project is advancing.

Said Baker: “We’ve been asking a lot of questions … and we have not been told straight answers.” 

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