ST. PAUL—The general says she's being hamstrung in her mission.
On Tuesday, March 6, Minnesota National Guard Brig. Gen. Johanna Clyborne — the newly appointed commissioner for the state's IT department, said delays by the Republican-led Legislature are prohibiting her from doing what she was hired to do: fix Minnesota's beleaguered computer system for vehicle registration and titles.
"I get it. You want someone to blame? Blame me. My responsibility. The buck stops with me," Clyborne said following an unsuccessful plea for lawmakers to immediately free up $10 million to keep computer programmers on board past the end of the month. "But right now, I don't even have the ability to even show that I can do this or that I can turn this around because I'm hamstrung by no funding, and I cannot commit money that I do not have."
Clyborne's remarks, which are disputed by Republicans, topped off a day that featured a new level of acrimony over the system, known as MNLARS, and how to fix it, as Republican lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton traded accusations and plans inched forward.
Below are some of the day's developments. But first, a quick refresher.
The $93 million system to replace a dinosaur of a 1980s system has been a mess since it was introduced in July. License centers, car dealers, insurance adjusters and regular folks have all been affected by the problems, which have ranged from lengthy delays to the inability to handle such things as transferring disability license plates. A number of problems have been fixed, but myriad issues remain.
The program was mainly developed in-house by the department, known as MNIT, and many lawmakers, mostly Republicans, have been thundering away at the department, as well as Dayton, a Democrat, as it became clear — by all accounts — that MNLARS should never have been launched. Dayton initially downplayed the problems and accused critics of playing politics, but he has since taken responsibility.
In January, shortly after Dayton appointed Clyborne to take over MNIT, officials said they'd need an additional $43 million — some right away — to get the program working as it should by the fall of 2019. Last month, officials clarified that they need $10 million by March 1 or all progress would come to a halt and the fix would be delayed by six months or so.
March 1 came and went.
Funding plan inches forward
On Tuesday, a House committee approved a plan that would free up that $10 million — but there are numerous strings attached. Those strings add badly needed oversight, Republicans say. But they could make the approval process take weeks, and some might be unacceptable to Dayton.
The strings include:
• Requiring commissioners to testify — "under penalty of perjury" — whether the project is moving ahead properly based on a number of prescribed milestones.
• Establishing milestones ranging from the obvious — "reduction in the backlog of vehicle titles" — to the fuzzy: "deputy registrar satisfaction."
• Forcing Dayton to take $10 million away from other departments.
That last one is a "non-starter," Dayton said Tuesday. His plan is to take $10 million from an existing account — a rainy day fund that draws money from title and registration fees — and transfer it to another account to keep paying the 39 contractors currently working on MNLARS, as well as buy hardware and increase customer service staff. "I have no problem with additional legislative oversight, but I can tell when I'm being gamed," Dayton said.
Governor lashes out
Following a breakfast with several prominent senators, Dayton lashed out at Republicans, accusing them of not really wanting to fix the system at all.
"I've really come to believe that there are some legislators who don't want us to improve MNLARS," Dayton told reporters Tuesday morning.
He then accused Republicans of trying to score political points: "I've said all along I'm to blame for this. My administration is to blame. I'm to blame. ... As long as they keep bashing this, it's good political fodder. And you know, if it's fixed by next fall, it increasingly becomes a nonissue. If it's still in an acute phase, then it's a live issue. That's the only reason I can see why we can't get ... a transfer of money from one account to another."
Republicans call bluffing
Republicans have accused Dayton of crying wolf about the urgency of the $10 million.
"They're putting a gun to our head and saying, 'Give us this money or else,'" said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who chairs the Senate transportation committee. Newman said he knows taxpayers will have to pay for MNLARS to be fixed and on Wednesday will introduce a Senate plan to get the agency $7.3 million, not $10 million.
"We're moving as quickly as we possibly can," Newman said, adding that he thought it was possible money could be approved by both chambers next week and disputed criticism that the frequent hearings lawmakers are holding are effectively delaying any real progress. "I think it's really important we have these hearings. I really want the public to weigh in on this."
As for Clyborne's saying she's hamstrung, here's what he said: "The new commissioner of MNIT strikes me as being a very honest, hard-working, decent person," he said. "But frankly ... she knew what she was getting into. She's gonna have to be somewhat realistic."
Bill to 'abolish' MNIT
Some lawmakers want to blow up the state's entire IT department — which lawmakers established with bipartisan support in 2011.
State Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, has introduced a bill that would "abolish" MNIT. The plan would make other departments at least consider contracting outside of state government for major computer projects in an effort to increase accountability. The plan would fold IT services under the direction of the Department of Administration, which currently oversees work ranging from purchasing to building maintenance.
Workers still working, for now
While the ranks of MNLARS computer workers have declined and experienced turnover during the past several months, all of the 39 contractors on the project when the $10 million demand was made are still there, MNIT officials confirmed Tuesday. But they've been given notice that, as things stand now, all but six will be gone at the end of the month.
A spokeswoman for MNIT said about half the workers have told their superiors they're either planning to leave or will start looking, and Clyborne warned that when computer coders start looking for a gig, they usually find one fast.