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MNLARS better, but no money to finish fixing it

Minnesota legislators talk before a meeting about the state vehicle registration and title system. From left are Rep. Paul Torkelson of Hanska, Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson and Rep. Dave Baker of Willmar. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
Donny Vosen of Brainerd, a deputy registrar, tells a legislative committee Wednesday, June 27, 2018, that problems with the Minnesota vehicle registration and licensing system are causing health--threatening stress among his employees. Looking on is Dana Bailey, who Gov. Mark Dayton appointed to help fix the problem. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL — Minnesotans should get better service than last July, when the state introduced new motor vehicle license and title computer software, state officials say, but there is not enough money to make it work right.

"It is way better than when it was rolled out in July," Commissioner Johanna Clyborne of the Minnesota Information

Technology Service said Wednesday, June 27, after a legislative committee received an update.

When asked if the state was running the system well, she said: "I think we could do this better."

Clyborne and Dana Bailey of her department said improvements have been made in computer software, so mistakes and waits to get license and title work done are shrinking.

The latest software fix came out Sunday.

"So far, so good," Bailey told committee members of the Sunday update, but she quickly added that since the Legislature did not approve tens of millions of dollars to fully repair the software that the $9.5 million legislators allocated soon will run out.

As the money is spent, the effort is turning more to keeping the software running and less on fixing holes in it.

Bailey said MN.IT, as the tech agency is known, is looking for ways to stretch the money as far as possible. But it cannot last beyond February, she added, and maybe not nearly that long.

It was not clear on how many of the software's flaws can be completed before money runs out.

The $93 million software package was released nearly a year ago, and Minnesotans immediately discovered it was not ready for prime time. Lines were long at deputy registrar offices, where title and licensing work is done. So were delays, and at times the software would not allow the work to be completed at all.

The Dayton administration said that to fix the problems it needed $10 million immediately and $43 million after July 1. Lawmakers approved $9.5 million, but Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed an overall bill containing more funds.

The governor also vetoed a bill with money to help deputy registrars, who he and lawmakers agree are taking most of the heat.

Donny Vosen, a Brainerd deputy registrar, said Dayton should rethink his opposition to calling a special legislative session. He said one is needed to keep some of the state's title and license offices running.

"If the governor does not understand the severity of what is happening here, he either needs new advisors or he is not listening," Vosen said. "Governor, if you are listening, I implore you to set your ego aside and call a special session to get this fix started before the whole deputy registrar infrastructure completely collapses."

Dayton has said he vetoed the deputy registrar funding measure because it did not include money to fix the overall issue.

Vosen said he has had three employees hospitalized over job stress and has heard similar reports from other parts of the state.

Added Gaye Smith, a South St. Paul deputy registrar: "In the end, we are the ones getting yelled at day in and day out."

However, she said, "it is not about us, it is about our citizens."

Scott Lambert of the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association is on a steering committee working on the problems with MNLARS, as the computer system is known. However, he said, of a list of 20 priorities he presented in January, just one has been corrected.

An example of something that has not been fixed, but is a priority, is the inability to transfer personalized license plates to a new car. Bailey said she does not know if that can be done before existing funding runs out.

Deputy registrars say one thing that could help customers is if they had the ability to fix mistakes in computer entries. Bailey said that may not happen before money ends, but the Department of Public Safety now has people on staff who can edit computer information when contacted by registrars. Even so, Vosen said, there sometimes is a 40-minute wait on the telephone while a customer is standing in his office.

House Transportation Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said he hears stories that some car leasing companies are getting titles from other states to avoid MNLARS problems.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.