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MNLARS needs much more work

ST. PAUL

The end of July marks an important anniversary. On July 24 of last year, Minnesota’s new system for licensing and registering vehicle titles (MNLARS) officially came online. It had been in production for nearly a decade. At one point, Hewlett-Packard was contracted to develop the software, but the state terminated that contract after only two years and decided to develop the program in-house using Minnesota’s IT agency, MN.IT

It proved to be a costly decision. At the time MNLARS was released, the state had already spent $90 million to get it up and running. Starting on day one, it was a complete failure.

If you have had to deal with the system, you are well aware of the problems: project delays, stressed staff, unfixable errors and lines of frustrated customers.

That is to say nothing of the 175 locally owned and operated deputy registrars who were, and are, on the verge of losing everything. These private businesses are paying extraordinary amounts of overtime; lines are long; staff is quitting; and employees are being hospitalized due to stress. This is a tremendous burden to put on private businesses deputized to serve the public.

It is why getting MNLARS on track was one of our key objectives this session.

Make no mistake: getting it turned around will be a long, complicated process. As we speak, the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor is running four separate investigations of MNLARS. This is virtually unheard of, but it speaks to the level of dysfunction within the program.

In March, the Legislature approved $9.65 million in emergency funding to address immediate IT-related costs. This money was focused on fixing the problems, not on adding unnecessary staff to answer phones.

Like many of you, I had concerns about the possibility of throwing good money after bad. That is why I stressed that any emergency appropriation must include strong oversight and accountability protections. Our bill did just that: it created an oversight panel, set iron-clad benchmarks and required more regular progress updates from MNLARS administration. We cannot have any more big surprises about failures or delays. There is even a mechanism in place to cut off funding if MNLARs officials do not meet their benchmarks.

We continued to address the MNLARS fiasco in our supplemental budget bill at the end of session. This bill included additional funding and a requirement that the money could only be used for contracted staff and technology costs. It also included a small amount of reimbursements for deputy registrars who had suffered major profit losses through no fault of their own.

Unfortunately, the governor vetoed the supplemental budget bill, so the Legislature will be forced to deal with MNLARS again next session. By the time we reconvene, the situation may very well be much worse.

I have a good relationship with Gov. Mark Dayton. We have worked together on a number of important issues throughout his tenure. But it is frustrating and disheartening that he refused to respond to this issue more aggressively. MNLARS needs a massive overhaul, and we squandered an opportunity to do serious reform.

The MNLARS disaster has had a devastating impact on Minnesota families and your locally owned deputy registrars. The accountability and oversight protections we passed were a good start, but we have so much more to do. Yes, the governor’s veto is a setback. But rest assured, fixing MNLARS remains a priority. I am hopeful the next governor is more enthusiastic about making the sweeping changes that MNLARS needs. We have to get it right, and get it right fast.

Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, represents the Fairmont region in the Minnesota Senate.

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