After weeks of clashing, lawmakers move on MNLARS funding
ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s Legislature was poised to approve nearly $10 million in emergency funding to fix the state’s troubled new computer system on Thursday, weeks after state technology officials warned they needed the money to stave off departures of key staff working on the platform.
The Senate voted 48-7 to fund the fixes for the system dubbed MNLARS, coupling the new funding with additional oversight measures like a new state commission tasked with ensuring the fixes stay on track. The House was expected to follow suit later Thursday, and Gov. Mark Dayton had indicated he’ll sign it.
“We need to get this fixed. We need to get it fixed soon,” Republican Sen. John Jasinski said.
The debate surrounding how to fix MNLARS has consumed much of the legislative session’s first month. Designed to replace the state’s 40-year-old mainframe for driver’s licenses and vehicle registration, MNLARS stumbled from its summer launch. It frustrated drivers and deputy registrars alike with delays and glitches when processing new license tabs and vehicle titles, creating a large backlog of transactions that state officials have slowly chipped away.
But the Minnesota Information Technology Services agency’s request for an additional $43 million — including $10 million by March — put the GOP-controlled Legislature in a bind, forcing them to weigh their anger that a nearly $100 computer system still isn’t working properly against the potential that it could worsen without more money to make needed fixes. The Legislature missed a March 1 deadline, the point at which the state sent out layoff notices to key contractors working on the system due to lack of funding.
Critically, the final compromise stripped out a House-backed provision that would have forced Dayton’s administration to pull together the money for the fixes from within his own agencies. Rep. Paul Torkelson, chair of the House Transportation committee, spearheaded that effort, calling it a way to hold Dayton accountable for his administration’s latest technological flop.
“The governor has taken verbal responsibility, but he has really made no effort to take any financial responsibility,” Torkelson said earlier Thursday.
But Dayton threatened to veto any bill that would force him to “cannibalize” other agencies to fund the repairs. Asked in a Wednesday interview how else he could be held responsible for the platform’s bungled rollout, he responded: “Fix it.”
At least two top contractors working on MNLARS took other jobs during the funding impasse, said Dana Bailey, who was brought into the IT agency in November to shepherd project improvements. More than five others had informed the state they were interviewing for other jobs.
“We’re glad that they’re going to send something to the governor that he is going to sign,” she said.
Even with the new funding and enhanced oversight, the debate about MNLARS isn’t over. The state is seeking another $33 million later this year to continue less time-sensitive repairs throughout the year as well as boost call-center staffing. But neither Bailey nor lawmakers were eager to talk about the next chapter of the debate.
“Ask me in a few weeks,” Bailey said.