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No money: MNLARS contractors prepare to end repair work

Minnesota Information Technology Commissioner Johanna Clyborne tells a state House committee Thursday, March 1, 2018, that without an immediate infusion of $10 million, contractors working on a troublesome vehicle registration and license computer system will be let go. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL—Fixing the problem-plagued Minnesota vehicle and license computer system may be stalled.

Contractors trying to fix the state software are receiving notices that the state is out of money to pay them.

Minnesota Information Technology Services mailed letters Thursday night, March 1, to 39 people working as independent contractors. The state agency says workers will begin to leave right away, which will stop work to repair the ill-fated computer system that has angered Minnesotans since summer.

The letters went out after lawmakers and the Dayton administration failed to reach agreement on increasing spending for the work by $10 million.

While the administration says that the high-demand computer programmers will find work elsewhere within days, a lawmaker who works in the tech industry said workers should be around for more than two weeks, giving state leaders time to resolve the funding issue.

"The sky is not falling," Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said.

"It is really on the knife's edge," Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday while awaiting word if lawmakers would approve the emergency $10 million request. The approval never came.

During an afternoon House committee meeting, Nash and Committee Chairwoman Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said they had too many questions to approve the funds.

The same goes for House Transportation Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who has spent hours in meetings in recent days trying to get enough information about why the administration needs the extra money on top of $93 million already spent over nine years to replace a 30-year-old computer system.

"It is hard to know how urgent it is," Torkelson said, adding that Dayton should have done more to inform lawmakers about the need.

The computer system will remain in operation, but problems will not be fixed until there is more funding, administration officials said.

Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, said he fears computer programmers will take other jobs and when funding is found that it will be hard to replace them. "These people who are working on the problem are starting to leave. ... You have to hire new professionals and train them."

The computer system, known as MNLARS, launched July 24 and Minnesotans immediately began seeing problems. Delays, mistakes and often an inability to even complete a transaction greeted many people who tried to conduct business about vehicle titles, registrations and licenses.

Driver's license transactions were not affected.

Many lawmakers say the MNLARS problem is one of the issues they hear most about from constituents. Torkelson said many have told him not to spend more money on the computer system.

About 25 people from the administration and Legislature met Wednesday night on the issue and talks continued throughout Thursday without an agreement.

Some lawmakers knew of the administration's $10 million ask a month ago, but some say they just heard about it in recent days. Republicans, in particular, say they need to know more before approving the funds.

Information Technology Commissioner Johanna Clyborne, who started her job little more than two weeks ago, said she is not happy with the situation and is investigating what went wrong so it does not happen with future software projects.

Joan Red Wing, who works for Clyborne, said workers now are conducting much more extensive tests before rolling out software upgrades, which should stop a issue in which a problem that is fixed with one update returns with the next.

Clyborne told Form News Service that the administration has checked, and it is against the law for the governor to move money from anywhere else to make the $10 million available for MNLARS. Torkelson, however, said he thinks it could be done.

The $10 million would be part of a $43 million infusion sought this legislative session to continue the software repair work.

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.