Municipal Telecommunications Referendum

Last month Cook County voters had a chance to vote on two issues related to community-sponsored broadband in their areas.

  1. Shall Cook County impose a sales and use tax of one percent (1%) on all taxable transactions within Cook County to pay for all or a portion of the following projects and associated financing costs: (i) construction and improvement of a countywide high-speed communications infrastructure network; [and two other projections for parking and the Grand Marias Public Library]?
  2. Shall Cook County construct and equip a new telephone exchange as a part of the construction and improvement of a countywide high-speed communications information network?

The first issue passed with 64.3%; the second didn’t with 55.9%. The second issue didn’t pass because it required a super-majority of 65%. What that means is that the voters supported the construction of a broadband network but that County will not be able to provide telephone service. It’s a blow to community interested in providing broadband because one big seller of a broadband package from a consumer’s perspective is the one-stop-shop triple play offering of voice, video and data. I’m sure it won’t stop the project – but it’s a barrier.

So folks have been asking me why the municipal telecommunications referendum requires a supermajority. Apparently it has required a supermajority since 1915, when the statute was enacted. But the discussion has come up since then; it was the subject of a TISP meeting last February – maybe it need to be addressed or reconsidered by policymakers.

Pro Supermajority

Folks who support the supermajority support it as a safety mechanism for tax payers. Randy Young from the Minnesota Telecom Alliance was kind enough to talk to me about this last week. Starting a company to provide telecommunications service is a risky business and requiring the supermajority requires a community to seriously consider the issue. I remember hearing from one town that having to reach that supermajority percentage was a good way for them to gain momentum and promote their upcoming service. (I’m sorry I don’t remember more details.) As I recall their first referendum didn’t pass – but they rallied and it did pass eventually. Now I suspect that after the first vote they were not supportive of the supermajority – but as I said it helped them focus and create a stronger plan.

Anti Supermajority

Folks who don’t support the supermajority point out that a referendum is not required for publicly owned Internet or television services. It is holding back local government from getting services to their citizens. So in Cook County the voters sent a mixed message, which leaves the County able to move forward – but with one important tool left out of their toolbox. Without permission to provide phone service they will only be able to offer 2/3 of the triple play offering most people seek; that is a handicap in the market. According to the Connected Nations maps and the Broadband Task Force (pg 29), Cook County is one of the most un/underserved counties in Minnesota. Without government intervention, they are unlikely to get service anytime soon.

I can understand the frustration of both sides. With funding being an overwhelming concern, I suspect citizens do not want to see government money spent on projects they don’t support. With broadband coming closer to being a utility, local governments do not want to be held captive to local providers who aren’t providing the services they need. The Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband report alludes to but does not address the referendum (page 68). But maybe it’s time to take a look at it again.

This entry was posted in MN, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (, hosts a radio show on MN music (, supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota ( and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

1 thought on “Municipal Telecommunications Referendum

  1. Pingback: Super-majority issues in the Legislature « Blandin on Broadband

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