From the MN Broadband Coalition…
Memo To: MRBC Members
Memo From: Nathan Zacharias
Re: Broadband Funding
House, Senate Send Broadband Funding to the Floor, Differences Remain
Saint Paul—With 17 days left in the 2020 legislative session, the House and Senate have sent legislation to the floors of each chamber that would spend $10 million on the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program. Additionally, a distance learning internet access program for students without broadband during the 2020 school year would receive $8 million or $15 million (depending on which version prevails) and a similar reimbursement program for telemedicine technology would receive $2 million. But the two chambers are trying to pass this legislation in slightly different ways.
The Senate Finance Committee unanimously passed Sen. Torrey Westrom’s (R-Elbow Lake) SF 4494 on Wednesday, April 29. The committee had two robust hearings on SF 4494 and worked through members’ concerns with spending new state dollars during economic uncertainty. The Senate Finance Committee decided that funding in SF 4494 for schools and telemedicine should be spent from funds in the federal coronavirus relief account if possible, but would come from the state’s general fund if they were not eligible for federal funds. The $10 million for the broadband grant program must qualify for funding via the federal coronavirus relief account or the appropriation is cancelled. The Commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget will make this determination. The bill was sent to the Senate floor for final debate and passage.
The House Greater Minnesota Jobs and Economic Development Finance Division amended and passed Rep. Rob Ecklund’s (DFL-International Falls) HF 3029 on Monday, April 27 and sent the bill to the Ways & Means Committee. During the Ways & Means hearing on Friday, May 1, the committee decided to attach HF 3029 as an amendment to a larger COVID-19 relief package, HF 1507. The broadband language included in HF 1507 is similar to the language in SF 4494 passed by the Senate Finance Committee, with two important changes: the $10 million for broadband grants should come from the federal coronavirus relief account if it qualifies, but would be spent from the general fund if it does not; and the committee increased the distance learning funding from $8 million to $15 million. In addition to broadband funding, this package includes funding for personal care assistance rate increases, small business loans, and homelessness prevention and assistance. The Ways and Means Committee passed the bill 18-7 and sent it to the House floor for final debate and passage.
(note: HF 3029 was also sent to the Rules and Legislative Administration Committee in case it needs to move independently of other COVID-19 funding before the end of the session)
While this process is difficult to follow, it’s clear that the House and Senate are on the same page when it comes to prioritizing additional funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program. Senate and House leaders are facing incredibly difficult choices during the pandemic and will face even harder decisions in the coming weeks and months with the state’s uncertain economic future. Through all this, they have consistently said that connecting more Minnesotans to broadband should remain a top priority. We are thankful for their leadership.
The two chambers will need to find a way to agree on how to pair up their COVID-19 relief funding priorities and to reconcile the differences between them. The Senate has not yet put forward a comprehensive spending package to match HF 1507, but there is certainly a possibility they will. The Legislature still has work to do on a Bonding bill and a few other outstanding items. The final stretch of days during the legislative session will be fluid and legislation will move quickly. We will continue to provide you with the most currently available information as it happens.