MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
Some lawmakers want to take a closer look at Montana's vehicle registration problems leading to long lines and frustrated motorists, even as the lawmakers are assured the issues are not nearly as costly as those in a past state computer software disaster. The car registration and titling computer system was restarted Wednesday after a two-day shutdown to fix critical issues, but lingering bugs left local clerks frustrated as taxpayers were forced in some places to stand in long lines. "I have a feeling it's going to be a very long summer," said Vickie Zeier, who runs vehicle registrations in Missoula County. The Legislative Finance Committee that meets June 15 is scheduled to look at the issue. And the Department of Justice is Not certain that of the $28 million allocated for the MERLIN computer program, enough remains to finish it and fix the bugs. Lawmakers, who remember the disaster at the Department of Revenue earlier in the decade that cost millions before a computer program known as POINTS was simply abandoned, are a little nervous. "I thought we bent over backward to avoid that," said Sen. Dave Lewis, a Helena Republican on the finance oversight committee. "I'd like to know why it won't work." But supporters of the new system say pieces of it are working well in other areas, such as with driver's license renewals. They say financial problems of the company charged with building the system make it harder to iron out bugs and finish the program. The core system remains very good, and is not totally flawed like POINTS was, said Larry Fasbender, deputy director at the Justice Department, which oversees the Motor Vehicle Division. He also noted improvements the system brings, such as the ability to renew vehicle tags over the Internet. "I think it always looks worse than it is when there are so many people affected by it," said Fasbender. "That's pretty standard when you have such a massive change. "We can fix these things. It's going to work." Fasbender said about $6 million of the original $28 million is available for fixing bugs and finishing a record keeping portion of the system. But since the original vendor that bui l t the program, BearingPoint, has filed for protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court it is not fulfilling its obligation to fix bugs under the contract price. That means the state must hire other programmers and vendors to fix it. Supporters said the state is getting a good deal on a program for which other states are paying more than $40 million. That's part of the problem: BearingPoint bid too little and was losing money all along on the contract. "At the end of the day we will have the most advanced system in the country," said Sen. John Brueggeman, the Pol son Republican who has backed the new system for years. "A year from now when the system is up and running, people are going to look back and say 'How did we do it the old way?'" Fasbender said he is focused on getting problems fixed, and will address budgeting concerns later. He said lawmakers are understandably concerned that the state isn't getting what it sought from a fixed-price contract. I don't know how understanding of the situation the Legislature is going to be," he said. County treasurers who miss the speed of the old system understand there is no going back. Gallatin County Treasurer Kim Buchanan said she is trusting state officials that the new system eventually will be an improvement.