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Walz takes first 'test' with Line 3 decision, MNLARS failures exposed

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, center, told reporters on Monday, Feb. 11, that he'd meet with stakeholders before announcing whether he'd drop an appeal blocking the Enbridge Line 3 project. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service1 / 4
David Lameyer of North St. Paul, Minn., holds his personalized license plate, with a number he’s had for 20 years, outside his office in Fridley on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. Like at least 1,000 other Minnesotans, Lameyer was unable to transfer his specialized plate — showing his initials and the year he was born — onto a car he bought earlier this year because the state’s troubled new computer system, known as MNLARS, is unable to process such a transfer. Dave Orrick / Forum News Service2 / 4
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House Speaker Melissa Hortman, left, Gov. Tim Walz, center, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, right, introduce new deadlines for finance bills at the Capitol on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service4 / 4

ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz's administration took its first real "test" this week as it issued an announcement saying it would petition for reconsideration of the Public Utilities Commission's certificate of need for the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project, letting an appeal move forward.

In the eyes of some, he passed with flying colors. Others said the decision showed he flunked his promise to govern with a "One Minnesota" message.

Another test — the administration's biggest yet — is slated for next week. Walz will present his budget proposal, putting on paper his top priorities for Minnesotans' taxpayer dollars and setting the table for debates likely to span months.

GOP lawmakers this week set out the "pillars" that would guide their budget-writing, and it was apparent that clashes were likely in the months and weeks ahead of the May deadline.

Lawmakers also learned this week about widespread problems that surrounded the rollout of the computer program used to get vehicle titles and license plate tabs. And new leaders at two departments faulted with causing headaches and long wait times for Minnesotans said they were committed to improving the system.

Here's a look at what went on this week at the Capitol.

Line 3 marks first real 'test' for Walz administration

The Walz administration faced a Tuesday, Feb. 12, deadline to decide whether it would act to let an appeal of the Enbridge oil pipeline move forward. Early that morning, the DFL governor said he would call for the PUC to reconsider its certificate of need for the project.

That move lets a Dayton administration appeal continue, and it delays construction on the 340-mile-long pipeline, which is set to replace the current 50-year-old Line 3 and carry 760,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the Enbridge terminal in Superior.

Environmental advocates and tribal leaders expressed support for the decision, and some made their way to the Capitol to hand in thank-you cards.

Union, economic development, and local government leaders in some of the affected areas, as well as Republican lawmakers on Tuesday shared their annoyance at the governor, saying he’d failed his first real test in office.

“This was Gov. Walz’s first test on what 'One Minnesota' means, and on this example, I think very clearly Gov. Walz has failed the test,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said. “It’s really unfortunate that Gov. Walz has decided to side with extreme radical environmentalists and not with Minnesotans.”

A day later, Walz told attendees at a Q & A at the University of Minnesota that he was aware that he'd irked several groups and defended his move to let the appeal move forward.

“If you can’t get people’s buy-in to believe that there’s validity behind the discussion — the social permit — it makes it very difficult to get these (things) done without great disruption,” Walz said.

Before announcing the decision, Walz met with 23 groups — 15 that supported the appeal and 8 that wanted Walz to drop it — a Walz spokeswoman told Forum News Service. She said all groups that requested a meeting or traveled to the Capitol were able to meet with the governor.

'Moral document' on the way as Walz preps to share budget

Next week, Walz is scheduled to unveil his first spending plan for the state, which is expected to come in around $47 billion. The DFL governor has said the document won't just be about money but will also be a "moral document."

"It’s going to be a reflection of our values,” Walz said.

Walz has previewed some of what the budget will contain: more money for local government and county program aid, a "moonshot" effort to expand broadband to rural Minnesota, a transportation package with a gas tax hike and a boost for Minnesota schools.

And it will include other proposals likely to fuel debates in the Legislature. As they laid out some of their top spending priorities this week, Walz and GOP lawmakers split on whether the state should levy a new tax to repair roads and bridges, keep an existing one to fund health care for low-income people and reconsider a program that offsets some of the risks for insurers, dropping insurance costs.

Senate Republicans said they'd oppose tax and fee increases and would look to cut down on fraudulent spending in state departments and agencies.

Legislative leaders in the country's only divided Legislature, along with Walz, this week also set earlier deadlines in hopes of getting a budget written on time and avoiding a special session.

Report shows widespread problems doomed MNLARS rollout

On Thursday, Feb. 14, the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor released an 86-page assessment of the launch of the computer program used to get vehicle titles and license plate tabs in Minnesota. In it, auditors exposed a series of failures and flawed decisions at nearly every step of the rollout, which caused long wait times for Minnesotans over the past two years.

The two departments tasked with rolling out the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, known as MNLARS, had nearly a decade and $100 million to get the new computer system up and running. And that should've been enough, auditors wrote.

But technical issues, a lack of testing prior to the launch, poor management and communication by those overseeing the project and an absence of key stakeholders in the decision-making process all prevented an effective roll out.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington on Thursday night told lawmakers that improvements had been made to MNLARS since it launched in 2017, but promised he would be the one to take responsibility if extended wait times persisted under his leadership.