The push for a $100 million upgrade of broadband Internet service in rural Minnesota is underway at the Legislature — without the backing of Gov. Mark Dayton.

Despite a $1.2 billion budget surplus and a funding request from his own task force, Dayton released a revised budget last week that had no money for broadband expansion.

On the campaign trail four years ago, Dayton learned firsthand about the inconsistent cell phone and Internet service in some parts of Minnesota. He pledged to have a border-to-border solution by the end of his first term, but that timetable now appears unrealistic.

Dayton said he left broadband funding out of his supplemental budget because the plan for a $100 million grant program lacked details about specific projects.

“To me the approach is you decide what you want to do and you justify the expenditure and then you seek the money for it, not seek the money and then decide what to do with it.”

Dayton said if he wins re-election in November, he’ll support broadband funding in the 2015 budget session.

Yet one broadband advocate said he was surprised and disappointed by the governor’s omission in this budget.

“I don’t know what’s driving that. It’s a bit of a head scratcher,” said Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership.

Dorman, a former Republican legislator, said the governor might need more information about the plan. But with goals for universal access to high-speed connections already spelled out in state statute, Dorman said it’s time to move forward.

“I mean, either we mean that we’re going to be in the top five, either we mean that we’re going to be a technologically advanced state, or we don’t,” Dorman said. “Then let’s quit paying lip service to it and say, ‘We’re happy being 23rd in the nation and 174th or whatever it is in the world.’ Other countries are kicking our rear end in this deal too.”

The proposal to establish a $100 million infrastructure grant fund this session came from Dayton’s own task force in a report it released in January. The grants would help providers build high-speed broadband infrastructure in rural areas identified as having the greatest needs.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher, chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband and a former DFL House Speaker, said there are many similar grant programs in state government. Kelliher is undaunted by the funding snub.

“Well, I’m still hopeful that the governor is open to the Legislature’s work on this. This is an issue that is clearly gaining a lot of momentum,” Kelliher said. “I think that people see it as a real economic imperative, and I think that we’re going to continue to work with the governor and the governor’s office to see if we can put something behind these goals this year to make sure that Minnesotans are getting what they need.”

House and Senate versions of the broadband bill cleared initial committee hurdles this week, but Democratic leaders in both chambers have not yet detailed all their plans for spending surplus money. State Sen. Matt Schmit, the sponsor of the Senate bill, said rural communities and providers are waiting for lawmakers to act.

“I don’t want to wait another year to get essential broadband connectivity out to rural Minnesota,” said Schmit, DFL-Red Wing. “This is a great equalizer. It’s a game changer for our state and for our rural economies and way of life, and why wait another day.”

There’s bipartisan support for broadband. State Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, said he usually favors private sector solutions, but in this case, he sees a role for government.

“I think people want this to be more of a private deal than a public, but there’s a realization that there might have to be a little bit of helping,” Hoppe said. “When we did the Rural Electrification or the Universal Service Fund, there are those moneys that people who use these services are paying in taxes. There’s money available to do it, $100 million might be a little aggressive right now. But it’s something we need to pay attention to.”

The broadband task force is also pushing this session for the repeal of a business sales tax passed last session on telecommunication equipment purchases. Dayton supports the repeal, and the House passed it last week in a broader tax cut bill. Senate DFL leaders have not yet made the same commitment.

©2014 West Central Tribune (Willmar, Minn.)