Lawmakers reach last-minute deal to prop up MNLARS

In the first bill of the year headed to Gov. Tim Walz’s desk, Minnesota lawmakers have approved millions of dollars to prop up the state’s problematic vehicle registration program.

Senate Republicans, House Democrats and Walz struck a last-minute deal on a pared-down, $5.7 million stopgap funding bill for the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, or MNLARS. Without the money, contractors working on fixes to the MNLARS system would be laid off.

The GOP-led Senate approved the bill first, on a 52-12 vote Monday evening. The House went second, voting 71-50 to send the measure to Walz despite objections from House Republicans who said their chamber had been “rolled” by the Senate in negotiations.

The MNLARS funding is part of a $13.3 million deal that includes $5.5 million for the state’s driver licensing program and $2 million for temporary customer service representatives within the state Department of Public Safety. 

Gov. Tim Walz could hold a signing ceremony as early as Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka told reporters during a Monday afternoon news conference.

The deal does not include $10 million in reimbursements for deputy registrars, the workers who process drivers’ vehicle registration and titling requests. Those workers have been hit with higher costs because of the state’s botched 2017 rollout of MNLARS.

Lawmakers will take up that bill separately, said state Sen. Scott Newman, the GOP chairman of the Senate Transportation committee. 

In his two-year budget request, Walz has proposed spending an additional $94 million on MNLARS, the driver's licensing program, and staffing needs by 2021.

Lawmakers have yet to agree to that request, and it’s unclear if they will. The agreement announced Monday includes $100,000 for an outside review of MNLARS that Newman said would be critical as lawmakers decide whether to continue with the current system or take a different course.

Senate Republicans declined to name who would conduct the outside review, and said that would be announced soon.