ST. PAUL - Minnesota officials have come up with a plan to continue trying to fix and upgrade the state’s beleaguered computer system for vehicle license plates and tabs.

They’re hoping to tap into funds slated for enhancements to a new computer system for Real ID driver’s licenses, which are being rolled out next month.

The likely solution floated this week to state lawmakers aims to keep improving MNLARS - the now-$100-million-plus computer system that was rolled out more than a year ago and has never worked as it was supposed to - through February by diverting $5.5 million from the Real ID track.

After February, work on MNLARS would essentially cease without new funding from the next Legislature and governor. A more-secure funding plan failed at the Capitol earlier this year. It became roadkill when it was included in a wide-ranging spending bill that Republican lawmakers passed and Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, vetoed for unrelated reasons. Each side blamed the other.

Commissioner Johanna Clyborne, who heads the state information technology department, or MNIT, told lawmakers and the Pioneer Press that the planned use of the $5.5 million in Real ID funds will delay enhancements to that system, but it won’t affect the underlying launch of the new licenses Oct. 1.

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Minnesotans with valid driver’s licenses will not have to rush to get a Real ID license. Starting in October 2020, the new licenses, which feature enhanced security, will be required to board domestic airline flights.

No one seems to like that such a Band-Aid maneuver is needed, but without it, several important upgrades to MNLARS would be delayed until at least the winter, if not longer.

“We’re kind of in a no-win situation, and so I’m trying to do the best I can,” Clyborne said in an interview. She was brought on board by Dayton last year when the MNLARS troubles boiled over amid complaints from license centers, many of which are privately owned businesses, as well as auto dealers, insurance companies, and regular folks unable to get their legally required paperwork in order.

Republican lawmakers pummeled the Dayton administration over the problems, with some threatening to attempt to disband the entire MNIT agency.

Nonetheless, lawmakers this week received the new plan soberly.

“The bottom line is that Minnesota citizens need these services in place,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who chairs the House Transportation Finance Committee, which has oversight over the program.

Those services to be fixed or upgraded include the following, all part of much longer lists that deputy registrars - people who operate license centers - have been demanding since last summer:

  • The ability to transfer specialty plates, including disability, military service and vanity license plates from one vehicle to another, such as when someone gets a new car and wants to keep his or her current plates. That was always allowed before, but MNLARS couldn’t do it, forcing some people to risk giving up sentimentally significant plates and pay more in fees for new plates to be issued.
  • Deputy registrars will be able to flag inaccurate data so it’s more likely to be fixed quickly. Registrars complained that beyond certain points, they couldn’t edit records. Instead, they often started over or called state workers, who were frequently overloaded. This workaround should help.
  • Scanned records and other information previously hidden will be visible to deputy registrars as they look at their computers. Subtle changes like this will mean titles get processed with less effort. While the hours-long lines of last summer are generally gone, many license centers reduced their hours to account for piles of after-hours data entry that was needed to account for failings like this.

The new funding plan doesn’t require approval from lawmakers, but it will need an official agreement between FAST Enterprises, the company hired to implement Real ID, and the state to allow the $5.5 million to be delayed. Clyborne and Torkelson both said FAST has indicated they’re receptive to the idea.

Implicit in the plan is that MNIT and the Department of Public Safety, which administers tabs and titles, will have to ask lawmakers for additional money early in the winter - a dicey proposition. The Legislature convenes in January and generally doesn’t approve funding until the spring.

However, last year the agency received a similar “emergency” appropriation to keep the fixes coming, and both Clyborne and Torkelson noted that this request should come as no surprise.

Clyborne said it’s too early to tell how much money will be needed. The original MNLARS system cost $93 million, and pretty much everything since the launch in August 2017 has been extra. When all is said and done, it seems unlikely the final price tag would be below $130 million. And that’s not including likely reimbursements to license centers, which have suffered financial losses, and potential refunds to customers who have overpaid. At least one attorney is exploring a possible lawsuit.

Delaying the $5.5 million to FAST doesn’t come without a price.

A set of added features to the Real ID software will be delayed until that money is paid, likely sometime after July 1.

Those features include:

  • Streamlining the way the driver’s license computers interact with the software that tracks driving exams.
  • Improving the way motorcycle crashes are recorded and available to state officials.
  • Allowing court computers to speak more fluently with state driver’s license computers, a move that could save time at county courthouses throughout the state as well as inside state offices.

Clyborne emphasized that none of these is essential for Real ID to work as required by federal homeland security laws enacted after Sept. 11, 2001.

While Clyborne praised staff inside MNIT and DPS’s Division of Driver and Vehicle Services (aka the “DMV”) for “some ingenuity” in coming up with the plan, she acknowledged that at this point, there is no timeline for when MNLARS will have its problems fixed and be running as many thought it should have when it was launched.

And, she added, a workable system is all most Minnesotans really want.

“They only care about getting what they want when they go to the DMV,” she said.