State lawmakers and the private contractors who operate many of Minnesota’s vehicle licensing registration offices see two paths to deal with the system’s badly bungled upgrade: the state can continue down the bumpy road of building its own system, or hire a private company to take over the job.
“I don’t think that there is any question that we’re going to have to spend more money,” said Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. “The real question is what are we going to spend it on?”
The state has invested at least $93 million to build the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS), which has had a problem-packed rollout since July. Minnesota IT Services, known as MNIT, and Department of Public Safety are in charge of the system. In January they requested an additional $43 million to fix it, including $10 million by March 1.
When the deadline passed without an influx of cash, the state agencies sent out notices to contractors that they would have to lay them off at the end of the month.
Without new funding, defects and gaps in the system’s functionality will persist and they will not be able to add some of the new features and functions previously planned, according to the state agencies overseeing the project.
“I understand the Legislature has a hard job to do, however, this system is too important to stop improving, and we need to cross the finish line. We owe it to the people of Minnesota to get this done, and done right,” MNIT Commissioner Johanna Clyborne said in a statement after the notices were sent out.
On Thursday, Rep. Regina Barr, R-Inver Grove Heights, introduced a bill to require the public safety commissioner to issue a request for information from vendors about the feasibility of using a private vendor to create a system to replace MNLARS.
Barr said she doesn’t trust those who are currently handling the upgrade. “I recognize that we might have to take a step back to take a step forward but … I just in good conscience can’t continue down that path,” she said.
MNIT and the Department of Public Safety have already hired a private company, Colorado-based FAST Enterprises, to develop one part of the MNLARS system. FAST Enterprises will work on driver’s license services, including Real ID.
South St. Paul Deputy Registrar Gaye Smith, one of the many private business owners who contract with the state to deliver vehicle services, has started compiling a spreadsheet of private companies, like FAST Enterprises, that have handled systems in other states. “You have to have informed decisions,” she said, and she wants lawmakers to know they have other options.
Deputy Registrar Bob Schmitt said he doesn’t have a lot of faith in MNLARS, but is also wary of having a new contractor start over.
“Is it going to be another nightmare?” Schmitt asked. “What do we do in the meantime?”
Newman said the timeline for a new vendor to implement a system could end up being shorter than the timeline to repair MNLARS. MNIT and the Department of Public Safety’s plan to fix the system would take two years.
But Frank Kadwell, a managing partner of a local consulting firm D3 Information Service, said bringing in a new company could be “a recipe for disaster.”
The private contractor would have to customize the company’s program to work in Minnesota, which can be time-consuming and expensive, he said, and the institutional knowledge of employees who have worked with the current system for a long time would be lost.