Others’ opinion: Fix Minnesota’s vehicle license and registration system

Published 8:01 am Monday, March 5, 2018

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

With an election certificate comes a shared responsibility to make government work. Gov. Mark Dayton was slow to live up to that responsibility last August when it became clear that the new Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS) for motor vehicles was performing poorly.

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But Dayton changed his tune a few months later. He apologized and vowed to correct the flawed new system. Since then, his administration has moved aggressively, installing new leadership, hiring outside help and issuing a total of 101 amendments to MNLARS software. As a result, a backlog of 380,000 vehicle registrations in November has been cut nearly in half. More improvements are needed and more are planned, with 32 priorities identified for action in the next six to eight months.

Now it’s time for the Legislature’s Republican majorities to shoulder their share of responsibility. Finishing the MNLARS job requires a spending authorization that only the Legislature can provide. The Dayton administration says MNLARS needs an additional $43 million, including a shift of $10 million originally appropriated for other driver and vehicle services purposes.

The $10 million shift is needed ASAP, the administration says. A funding gap of even a few weeks will result in the loss of workers who are key to making corrections. Layoff notices went out to several dozen workers on Thursday and are expected to lead to the departure of high-demand talent within days. That exodus could add months or even years to the pace of improvements, the administration says, burdening 175 deputy registrars and the vehicle-owning public with more of the long lines, delays and license-plate errors that have plagued MNLARS since July.

The Legislature has been on notice since late January about the need for additional funding. It was reminded of the urgency attached to the $10 million funding shift last week. But when given the opportunity Thursday to respond, the House declined to do so, casting a 55-74 party-line vote against taking immediate action.

Republican Rep. Paul Torkelson, transportation chair, said denying the requested suspension of House rules was a way to “put more pressure on this agency and on this governor” to fix MNLARS. “The responsibility for this mess lies squarely on the shoulders of the governor and his administration,” he said.

To that, DFL Rep. Rick Hansen aptly responded: “After this vote, it’s yours.” Refusing to shift funds before layoff notices were required to go out makes Republican legislators part of the MNLARS problem.

Torkelson issued a statement after the vote promising to review the request next week and “take action as appropriate.” Appropriate action must consist of more than bashing the DFL governor. Funding that keeps the MNLARS repair team on the job must come next week.

Then legislators and the executive branch should seek to understand why, for the second time in recent years, a major new state IT system was released for public use before it had been proven to be bug-free. The problems first with MNsure in 2013-14 and now with MNLARS are similar enough to point to a systemic weakness in the handling of technology-based upgrades to the delivery of services. The Office of the Legislative Auditor has already issued a preliminary review of MNLARS and can be expected to do more; legislators should ensure that the office has the resources for an analysis that points to better results.

There’s political utility for Republicans in prolonging the MNLARS crisis. That was illustrated moments after the House vote on Thursday, when GOP Sen. Karin Housley, a U.S. Senate candidate, issued a release “sharply condemning Tina Smith for forcing Minnesota taxpayers to cover the $43 million MNLARS repair bill.” Smith is a U.S. senator who was formerly Dayton’s lieutenant governor, but a Dayton spokesman said she played no role in the MNLARS changes.

Housley’s release shows how eager Republicans are to make political hay with the MNLARS problems. Legislators should know that Minnesotans expect them to be at least as eager to produce solutions.