Money Troubles Loom for Embattled Minnesota Vehicle Licensing System

Despite significant efforts to fix glitches in the state’s beleaguered licensing and registration system, officials warn the project will run out of money in February — if not sooner.

by Dave Orrick, Pioneer Press / June 28, 2018
Minnesota Capitol Eyragon Eidam/Government Technology

(TNS) — Minnesota’s beleaguered computer system for vehicle titles and tabs won’t be fixed before the agencies responsible for it run out of money, officials said Wednesday.

Not only that, work to fix glitches in the system, known as MNLARS, will halt in February — probably sooner — and much of the team that’s been working on it will be dismantled, officials told lawmakers.

That sober truth is the result of politics. Tens of millions of dollars in funding that was needed to fix the system — and add new features that were never built into it but are needed — fell victim to disagreement between Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled state Legislature at the Capitol this spring.

Much of the funding was included in a massive bill lawmakers from the House and Senate approved but Dayton vetoed because of concerns over unrelated issues.

As it stands, the earliest any new funding could come is next winter when a new Legislature — and a new governor — convene. Except for emergency appropriations, most funding approved then will start flowing July 1, 2019.

In the meantime, state information technology officials said, state workers and contractors are scrambling to fix the highest-priority things.

It’s unclear which problems will be fixed and which will be left until funding becomes available.

DISABLED AND VANITY PLATES

Transferring specialized license plates — ranging from personal vanity plates to wheelchair-emblazoned plates for the disabled — is still not possible. People who want or need such plates can still get them, but they have to be new plates. Sometimes this means paying more, and in the case of vanity plates, it means a slightly different phrase must be on the new plates.

Dana Bailey, executive director of projects and initiatives for MNIT, Minnesota’s information technology department, said Wednesday that she doesn’t know when this will be changed — or if it will be done before the money runs out.

FIXING ERRORS

License center workers still can’t fix mistakes they catch while double-checking their work. The new upgrade helps this: License center workers can call a “liaison,” a state worker at the Department of Public Safety’s Driver and Vehicle Services Division, and the liaison can correct the error immediately. However, that call can include hold times of half an hour — and the worker and the customer just have to stand there and wait. License center workers — often known as deputy registrars — have been asking for this editing ability since the system was first launched, but they haven’t gotten it.

With this issue, too, Bailey said she doesn’t know if it will be addressed before the money runs out. MNIT hopes to have answers later this summer.

IMPROVEMENTS REPORTED

To be clear, much of MNLARS works. Most people who need to renew their tabs each year are doing so with little problems, whether in person, online or by mail, according to state officials, several license centers and anecdotal reports.

And by many accounts, things have improved in the past several months. A representative of an automobile auction company said Wednesday that a major recent upgrade has made life better for auto auction operations, which rely on the rapid transfer of vehicle titles.

Additionally, law enforcement now has immediate access to updated information; as soon as a title is recorded at a license center, cops know who the new owner is. Under the old 1980s-era system, it generally took weeks before new information made it into a database accessible to police.

But, the $93 million system, which was launched nearly a year ago and whose cost has now exceeded $100 million, isn’t working like it should.

PROBLEMS PERSIST

“Our lives have been turned upside down,” Donny Vosen, a deputy registrar who operates a license center in Brainerd, told a panel of lawmakers who sit on a newly formed “MNLARS steering committee.” Vosen and several other deputy registrars have become familiar fixtures at hearings in St. Paul. Once unseen machinery in the bureaucracy that delivered vehicle and title services to the masses, they’ve become first responders to the problems the troubled system has caused.

Their message Wednesday was this: MNLARS still stinks.

“Even if every fault and gap in MNLARS is fixed tomorrow, it won’t change the fact that it’s still not a user-friendly system,” Vosen said.

©2018 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.