Daily Digest: VTRS, U building debate, Omar violations

Good morning. Welcome to Monday and a return of your Daily Digest.

1. Who cares what it’s called as long as it works. It’s goodbye MNLARS and hello VTRS. Pronounced VIT-russ, it stands for Vehicle Title and Registration System. No matter what you call it, it’s been expensive. Taxpayers have spent more than $100 million over the past decade on MNLARS, which ran into problems as soon as it was launched two years ago. And the transportation budget bill that lawmakers passed in last month’s special session spends another $53 million and raises fees to make MNLARS go away and replace it with an off-the-shelf software package. The new name is important, said Senate transportation committee chair Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. “I want people to know that there is a difference. If we left it with the name MNLARS, I don’t think people would have understood that this is a brand-new system.” During the debate on the bill last month, Newman said the extra expense will be worth it. “In the end, we will wind up with a system that actually works. It will be a system that we will be able to maintain, and the state of Minnesota will be in a position to no longer have to put up with the difficulties that we have put up with for the last two years and more.” (MPR News)

2. Behind the scenes on debate over U of M building names. Intense deadline pressure, hurdles to tracking down records and skepticism about administrator support plagued a University of Minnesota faculty task force that weighed renaming four Twin Cities campus buildings, newly released documents suggest. In April, a near-unanimous governing board rejected the task force’s recommendations to strip the names of U administrators who did not integrate campus dorms in the 1930s and ’40s. But the move hasn’t brought closure in a contentious chapter at the end of Eric Kaler’s presidency that has strained relationships between leaders, professors and students. As the U braces for another foray into reckoning with its history, correspondence by task force members and others sheds light on university missteps — and hints at the challenges of rebounding from them. The e-mails include no evidence that the task force intentionally excluded or twisted information to malign former President Lotus Coffman and the other former leaders, as some regents have charged. They do capture a scramble to finish a 125-page report on a tight timeline, acknowledgments that the report would be short of definitive — and frustration with U leaders who faculty felt bungled the process. (Star Tribune)

3. Omar fined for violating campaign finance rules. U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar violated state rules when she used thousands of dollars of campaign funds to pay for personal out-of-state travel and help on her tax returns, according to a ruling from the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board on Thursday. Omar, who was a first-term state representative at the time of the violations, must reimburse her former campaign committee $3,469 to cover those travel and legal costs. She must also pay the state a $500 civil penalty for using campaign cash to travel to Florida, where she accepted an honorarium. The board found Omar’s campaign purchased a plane ticket to Boston to speak at a political rally, paid for a hotel in Washington, D.C., where she participated in an interview for the Girl UP UN conference, and covered her travel to Chicago to accept an award and attend a fundraising luncheon. (MPR News)

4. Low income aid gets first boost in over three decades. Toshieka Washington can easily list off what $100 a month means to her: two rolls of toilet paper instead of just one, laundry detergent, Wi-Fi in her apartment, clothes for her rapidly growing teenage son and colored pencils for her 6-year-old. “It’s kind of hard for him to understand [that] if we have more money, he can have more things,” Washington said, taking a break from babysitting her nephew at her apartment in Duluth. “He can have his color pencils with his crayons because he’s very, very talented at coloring. It means a lot to him to get more coloring books.” Washington receives help from the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, a cash assistance program for low-income families. Through the program, a family of three with no income — just like Washington’s — can apply for $532 in grants each month as well as extra money for food assistance. And some families also get $110 to help with housing. That amount is still below the federal poverty line, but the budget that Minnesota lawmakers approved in May will increase those grants by $100 a month starting in February 2020. It’s the first increase in the program since it was first started 33 years ago. The state estimates it will help more than 30,000 families across the state. (MPR News)

5. Emmer hears from central Minnesota constituents. Dozens of U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer’s supporters and opponents attended a town hall meeting in Sauk Rapids Friday night to ask his stance on a number of issues. Of the topics raised by participants, healthcare, trade, border security and climate change led much of the conversation. One constituent spoke up about costly insurance premiums and expensive prescriptions.  “We are trying to bring health care back to the states,” said Emmer. “We were doing pretty well before the Affordable Care Act. Ninety-four to 96 percent of people were covered in Minnesota.” Emmer said the biggest issue is making sure citizens have access to life-saving treatment, such as EpiPens and insulin. (St. Cloud Times)

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