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Minnesota's DMV system under scrutiny of 4 watchdog investigations

Minnesota Deputy Legislative Auditor Judy Randall speaks to state lawmakers as Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles listens during a hearing at the state Capitol Wednesday, June 27, 2018. Dave Orrick / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL—A Minnesota government watchdog agency is running four separate probes related to the state's troubled computer system for vehicle titles and registration.

The system, known as MNLARS, has been beset by problems since it was launched nearly a year ago.

"It's extremely unusual to be dedicating this much resources to one topic," said Judy Randall, who is overseeing the four projects for the state Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA), a nonpartisan agency that scrutinizes government for the Legislature. "It speaks to the desire by the Legislature to have some accountability and transparency, and it speaks to how important this system is to the people of Minnesota. It touches almost everyone in the state."

As the one-year anniversary of MNLARS approaches, more than $100 million in taxpayer money has been spent, and there's widespread agreement it still doesn't work as it should. Moreover, MNIT — the state information-technology agency that developed the program and has been working to fix it — will run out of money before the system is up to snuff, MNIT officials told lawmakers recently.

None of the probes is law-enforcement related — and no one has alleged criminal activity is to blame for the problems — but the four fact-finding projects will amount to the most expansive examinations of MNLARS and MNIT to date.

Here's a summary of each:

What went wrong?

What: From warning signs that weren't heeded to decisions that ultimately led to the launch of a then-$90-million program that wasn't ready, this "special review" will seek to answer the questions that many keep asking: How did this happen, and how can we ensure it won't happen again? Current and former MNLARS workers are being interviewed.

Who: The inquiry will be led by Joel Alter, a veteran of the OLA who also examined the botched launch of software for MNsure, a state health insurance portal, several years ago.

When: The final report is expected before the end of the year.

How accurate are the records?

What: There's no question that some people have paid the wrong amount — maybe too little, maybe too much — for vehicle tabs under MNLARS. But the scope and frequency of the errors remain unclear. This examination includes taking samples of hundreds of transactions and checking how much people were charged for tabs, titles, taxes and fees — and whether they were right.

Weird wrinkle: State law currently forbids anyone from paying more than the previous year to renew vehicle tabs, so if MNLARS erroneously charged someone too little, either state law will have to be changed or, as state Rep. Paul Torkelson put it: "Perhaps it was more than his lucky day. Maybe it was his lucky decade."

Who: The OLA's team of financial auditors are using forensic accounting techniques for this deep dive.

When: The final report is expected by the end of August.

Tech fact checks

What: The scope of this project is still being determined, but in a nutshell, lawmakers want to be sure that what they're being told by state officials is really what's going on. Because so many of the MNLARS problems are mired in computer code — and so few lawmakers are information technology experts — a new law directs the OLA to essentially serve as translators and verifiers for quarterly MNLARS reports lawmakers now receive.

Who: Mark Mathison, a former MNIT employee — who never worked on MNLARS but has worked for the OLA — has been hired to lead this project, and at least one other computer expert is expected to be hired.

When: Mathison is likely to submit quarterly reports for as long as MNLARS problems persist.

What's up with MNIT?

What: This wide-ranging "program evaluation" will examine the entire state agency known as MNIT. MNIT was established in 2011 as a way to consolidate a patchwork of IT operations scattered throughout state government. It's never been comprehensively reviewed, and the MNLARS troubles prompted this review. Several lawmakers even suggested disbanding the agency. The OLA was directed to do this sweeping study by the Legislative Audit Commission, an equally bipartisan panel of lawmakers from the House and Senate.

Who: OLA staff who regularly examine large state government operations will do this.

When: The final report is expected in January.

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