A proposal to provide more broadband funding for communities and agencies across Minnesota faces an uncertain future this year as state officials consider how to spend federal virus-related aid.
(TNS) — A proposal to provide more broadband funding across Minnesota faces an uncertain future this year as state officials consider how to spend federal virus-related aid.
The Minnesota Senate passed a $27 million broadband bill that relies on federal CARES Act money during the June special session, but the House never took up the bill. Republicans say House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Gov. Tim Walz have held up the bill over political issues, while Democrats say Walz is carefully weighing state spending priorities when it comes to federal COVID-19 funding.
As a result, the state may not get more broadband funding at a time when more Minnesotans are using the internet for work and school, something lawmakers agree will hurt Greater Minnesota over time.
“Rural broadband is a very important issue on par with rural electrification of the United States in the 1930s,” said Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato.
Frentz, like other area lawmakers, said he continues to get phone calls from people in south-central Minnesota who lack decent internet options. About 8% of the state, including about 18% of rural Minnesota, has yet to meet state broadband internet guidelines of at least 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds.
Blue Earth, Waseca, Le Sueur, Nicollet, Brown and Martin counties all have between 13% to 17% of households that don’t meet state broadband guidelines, while Watonwan County has about 20% of households and Faribault County has about 8% of households that don’t meet those same requirements.
Over the past few years, DFL and GOP lawmakers argued over how much to spend on broadband grants, as well as what kind of technology to pay for. Democrats favor spending more money on grants to install broadband fiber optics networks across the state. Republicans favor not spending as much but purchasing wireless hotspots and other less-expensive internet connectivity options.
Though it will take months before any broadband money passed this year funds internet infrastructure, rural lawmakers argue there’s far more need for that money than ever before as residents may have to drive to a McDonald’s parking lot or a nearby school just to connect to the web for telemedicine appointments or small-business needs.
“There’s a big difference between having absolutely no access or having access that varies depending on your provider,” said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center.
Republican Sen. Rich Draheim, of Madison Lake, has introduced several bills related to broadband this year. While he plans to address broadband speed issues during the Legislature’s 2021 regular session, he said he hopes Walz decides to allocate funding for broadband this year, on top of the $40 million lawmakers approved in 2019. Moreover, Draheim argues the state needs to do more to connect rural Minnesotans sooner rather than pay for fiber networks that take months to install.
“I’d rather have an imperfect solution which would be better than nothing, especially if it costs 10 cents on the dollar,” he said.
Many lawmakers are skeptical any bills outside of virus-related issues can pass the Legislature during special sessions during the next few months, which will likely happen so the state can continue its COVID-19 peacetime emergency orders. While lawmakers will support a broadband bill using federal money, legislators may balk at using general fund money to pay for more broadband when the state faces a perceived $2.4 billion deficit next year.
And as the election season kicks into gear, lawmakers are concerned negative ads and campaign tactics will mar potential cooperation.
“It’s a wait-and-see thing,” said Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter. “You start to see attack ads show up, and that’s not going to bode well for collegial support. I don’t think that’s going to play well where they’re attacking you on the one hand and asking you to support a bill with the other.”
©2020 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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