An update from the MN Broadband Coalition…
Legislature Curtails Operations
The Minnesota legislature will be operating on an “on-call basis” until at least April 14. Most committee hearings scheduled for this week and beyond have been cancelled. Senate and House leaders announced that they would be likely be putting off the bulk of the session’s normal workload—a bonding bill, supplemental budget, and other items—until after the Easter/Passover break concludes. However, legislative leaders can call the House and Senate back to session before April 14 if needed. Legislators passed a $200 million emergency funding bill early Tuesday morning to give aid to hospitals across the state. Leaders said a broader COVID-19 response bill is an immediate need, and that a bonding bill as well as other items with bipartisan agreement were priorities for the remainder of the session.
Scaling back the day-to-day business of the Legislature is an extraordinary move, but necessary. The Capitol and other legislative office buildings can receive thousands of visitors every day in addition to hundreds of staff and lobbyists. March, April, and May are also when thousands of middle-schoolers take field trips to the Capitol. The trend of closing public buildings is sweeping the nation as COVID-19 cases begin to pile up, even here in Minnesota. The House floor and committee rooms have already been rearranged so legislators can comply with 6-foot social distancing recommendations. As Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka put it, “this is uncharted territory.” Never before has the state dealt with a crisis quite like this.
What about Broadband?
Minnesotans have been asked to work and learn from home and we all know that it impossible for people in rural Minnesota who lack access to basic broadband service. Administrators and school boards are grappling with this challenge. Virginia (MN) Public Schools have set up access points so students can access WiFi in the school parking lot. Other school districts will likely come up with similar plans. But they shouldn’t have to. If the grant program had been fully funded from day 1, we would be closer to our goal of connecting every Minnesotan and have less need for makeshift solutions.
The Coalition was featured in a story published Monday and broadcast on radio networks across the state on how COVID-19 has further highlighted the need for ubiquitous broadband.
We’ve been making the case the broadband funding should be part of any supplemental funding package that passes the Legislature this year. Bills for an additional $30 million per year (HF 3029/SF 3049) have been heard by their respective committees and are ready to move forward should the Legislature choose to do so. The situation at the Legislature can only be described as “fluid” for the next month, but we will be closely monitoring any action by committees or on the floor. If there is an opportunity for broadband funding to be part of a bill, the Coalition will make sure legislators know how important the issue is.