News from the MN Broadband Coalition…
House and Senate Hear Broadband Bills; $1.5 billion Surplus
Saint Paul—It was a busy week at the Minnesota State Capitol, so let’s jump right into the big news items that are affecting broadband advocates and the Coalition.
Day on the Hill Registration Is Open
The online registration portal for our March 12 Broadband Day on the Hill is now open. Please click this link to register today! We will have a full day of speakers and legislative meetings.
Coalition Elects Vince Robinson as New Chair
During the full Coalition meeting on Tuesday February 25, members voted unanimously to elect Vince Robinson as the new Coalition Chair. He takes over for Nancy Hoffman who recently stepped down. We want to thank both Vince and Nancy for their years of hard work and dedication to broadband access and the Coalition!
MMB Announces $1.5 Billion Surplus
Legislators and citizens alike got the good news Thursday morning that the state’s economy remains strong. The state is projected to have a $1.5 billion surplus, according Minnesota Management and Budget’s February Revenue and Economic Forecast. This figure is $200 million more than the $1.3 billion that was projected in the November report.
Republicans and Democrats are already offering competing ideas for what the state should do with the additional dollars, while both parties agree the state should maintain a healthy “rainy-day” budget reserve account. Republican leaders Sen. Paul Gazelka and Rep. Kurt Daudt talked about using surplus dollars for tax relief plans that would target the social security tax. House Democrats have already put forward plans for paid family leave, early childhood, and education. Both parties are also beginning to talk about leaving some wiggle room to address the Coronavirus, should it become a local issue.
Now that we know exactly how much additional funding will be available, we will see a supplemental budget proposal from the governor, likely around March 10. The House and Senate will also release their initial budgets and give each committee a target for how much it can spend. After deciding which programs will receive funding, committees will assemble all new spending into a single bill which will become the state’s supplemental budget. Although we are still over two months away from the May 18 adjournment date, the roadmap to the end of session became a little clearer with today’s surplus announcement.
House and Senate Broadband Hearings
On Monday February 24, the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Finance Committee heard SF 3049 authored by Sen. Rich Draheim. The Committee received testimony from the Office of Broadband on the basics of the Border-to-Border Grant Program and how much it has improved rural broadband access in the last 7 years. Jane Leonard of Growth and Justice testified on behalf of the Coalition, asking committee members to provide a $30 million annual appropriation for broadband—thank you Jane! The bill was laid over for possible inclusion in the committee’s supplemental budget.
On Wednesday, February 26, the House Greater Minnesota Jobs and Economic Development Finance Division heard Rep. Rob Ecklund’s HF 3029, the House version of SF 3049. There was a robust discussion between committee members and the Office of Broadband about access, program length, targeting grants, and matching funds. After that Vince Robinsion, newly elected Chair of the Coalition testified in favor of the bill alongside representatives from Minnesota Farmers Union, BEVCOMM, MN Rural Counties Caucus, and Woodstock Communications. The committee elected to not take action on the bill and will take it up when the committee receives a budget target from House leadership.
With a $1.5 billion surplus, the Coalition remains cautiously optimistic for additional broadband funding. Governor Walz has said he is in favor of at least $30 million in one-time funding and we have bipartisan support in both chambers for the program. We will continue to work with legislative leadership as they develop budget targets and, eventually, a supplemental budget to make sure they know that additional broadband funding is required to stay on track to meeting our state speed goals.