Free car tabs in Minnesota? Splinter GOP group suggests it
ST. PAUL — Free tabs. For one year. For all Minnesotans.
A splinter group of Republican lawmakers is pitching just that.
It probably won’t happen, but it’s a good way to grab attention — and some of the group’s other ideas for how to deal with the state’s troubled computer system for license plates and titles have broader traction.
The proposal comes from the New House Republican Caucus, four conservative lawmakers with a shared disdain for government bureaucracy and taxes. The group on Thursday, March 7, announced its own ideas for a state budget, which would be significantly smaller than the one Democratic Gov. Tim Walz has proposed, largely through $2 billion cuts to health and human service programs like state-subsidized child care and health insurance.
Headlining their budget proposal is a plan to take $1 billion from the state’s nearly $2.5 billion rainy-day fund and use that to pay for every Minnesota vehicle’s license plate tab fees for a year.
The idea recalls that of former Gov. Jesse Ventura, who championed “Jesse checks” written directly to Minnesotans out of state reserves.
It’s a practice frowned upon by many state fiscal experts, who argue that healthy rainy-day funds, which often grow during periods of economic growth, are needed for the lean times.
But it’s the kind of a move that regular people can relate to, said Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, one of the members of the group. “License tab fees are big pain for people,” he said.
Paying annual license plate renewals has been especially painful for some Minnesotans since 2017, when the state botched the launch of MNLARS, a new computer system that, more than $100 million later, still isn’t working right.
To be clear, the vast majority of transactions are now moving along without delay, but the legacy of the miscues has led to a contempt by many lawmakers, especially Republicans, toward the system.
To that end, the four lawmakers propose not only scrapping MNLARS, but potentially rewriting reams of state laws and county codes that determine how much we pay for tabs, from vehicle depreciation to county wheelage taxes to various other fees that have been tacked on over the years to various types of license plates.
It’s all those add-ons that made writing the MNLARS software so complex that the state wound up doing it in-house after at first trying to have it done by the private sector. Nearly a decade ago, the contract was put out for bid. 3M looked into it and decided against pursuing it. HP, the only other company that bid, got the contract, but after several years of struggles, was essentially terminated by the state.
Since the botched MNLARS launch, many have asked: Why can’t the state just buy software “off the shelf” or from another state? State technology officials have pointed to the history as evidence it’s easier said than done.
Change state laws?
But Munson, who works in the information technology industry, said everyone has been thinking about it the wrong way. The state should figure out which state’s software system works best, purchase that software, and “change our laws to meet the requirements of that software.”
Whether that would be feasible is unclear, but Walz himself earlier in the week said he’s open to that way of thinking, which other lawmakers have mused on.
That notion is among many that will be considered by a “blue ribbon council” Walz has created to examine all of state IT work, as well as MNLARS specifically. On Wednesday, March 6, Walz made several additional appointments to the panel, bringing the total number to 15.
The panel is being chaired by Rick King, executive vice president of Thomson Reuters. Members include a number of state and local government officials, as well as senior officials from the private sector, including Land O’Lakes, TCF Bank and Delta Air Lines.