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Lawmakers greenlight emergency funding to keep MNLARS fixes moving

Gov. Tim Walz, second from right, shares a laugh with Steve Erickson, right, and state Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, outside Hanscom Motor Vehicle Office in Faribault on Thursday, Feb. 14. Getting a new plate for his truck has taken about a year and a half, Erickson said. The delays have been due to new state software that's been fraught with bugs. Jacob Swanson / Faribault Daily News

ST. PAUL Minnesota lawmakers likely averted losing contractors that know how to fix the state's troubled drivers licensing and vehicle registration computer system when they approved emergency funding to keep the workers in place.

Ahead of a Tuesday deadline, lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives passed proposals Monday, March 4, that would green light $13.3 million in one-time money for the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, known as MNLARS. The funds would keep the outside contract workers employed and continue fixes and improvements of the computer system.

The bill moves now to Gov. Tim Walz's desk for his signature. He was expected to sign it into law.

In the hours before the vote, the measure's supporters which included Democrats and Republicans warned that if they failed to act quickly, layoff notices would go out on Tuesday and efforts to improve the MNLARS system would see a setback.

“My greatest fear is that there will be a system breakdown and contractors will not be there to fix it," Senate Transportation Committee Chair Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said. "That would be devastating to the state of Minnesota."

The proposal is short of the nearly $16 million Walz requested to help improve the system and it doesn't include money to reimburse deputy auditors or others who say they've been shorted since the program's rollout in 2017. But legislative leaders and Walz have supported the package as a first step.

The push for emergency funds comes weeks after the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor reported that the Department of Public Safety and Minnesota Information Technology Services had nearly a decade and $100 million to get the new computer system up and running. And that should've been enough, auditors wrote.

But technical issues, a lack of testing prior to the launch, poor management and communication by those overseeing the project and an absence of key stakeholders in the decision-making process all prevented an effective roll out.

Opponents said the state shouldn't keep putting state dollars toward a system that has caused so many problems. And they raised frustrations about passing a proposal that didn't include additional funds for deputy registrars.

“This was a leadership failure and the first thing we pass out of this body is money to keep this thing on life support,” Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said. "This makes no sense."

As part of their agreement, legislative leaders said they'd push for an expert independent audit of MNLARS that could help guide future policy and spending decisions. They issued few details about the group that would conduct the probe but said more information likely would be released on Tuesday.

Walz at a news conference on Monday said his administration now bears responsibility for MNLARS. He promised that his administration would resolve problems with the system and relieve Minnesotans' frustrations in trying to get licenses or transfer auto titles.

"The improved customer service will ratchet up and Minnesotans will see that what they should expect is the highest quality service from their government," Walz said.

And Walz said he's been carefully weighing his pick for commissioner of Minnesota Information Technology Services as that individual could have a key role in working with MNLARS and other state programs in the future.

“I can’t get this one wrong," Walz said.