Here’s an update from the MN Broadband Coalition…
Memo To: MRBC Members
Memo From: Nathan Zacharias
Re: Special Session Ends Without Deal
Special Session Ends Without Deal on Broadband, Again
Saint Paul, Minn.—For the second time in a month, lawmakers left town without sending a broadband funding bill to Governor Walz’s desk. The special session called by the governor on June 12 ended in the early morning hours on June 20. Major items like police reform, a bonding bill, and COVID-19 relief were also left undone.
A $27 million bill—including $10 million for a new supplemental broadband grant program that would put projects in the ground by year’s end—was drafted and passed by the Senate 67-0. SF 6 was worked out between Sen. Torrey Westrom and Rep. Rob Ecklund. The bill had bipartisan support in both chambers. However, there was concern raised by the Governor’s office about several bills that would draw from the federal CARES Act fund, including the broadband bill. The House did not bring the bill up for a vote.
Advocates and state officials worry the clock is running out on the supplemental broadband program. Part of the reason the program qualifies for CARES Act funding is that projects would be completed by year’s end. Unless a second special session is called quickly and the bill passed, there will not be enough time for the grant process and construction to meet that timeline. This means there would be no additional funding for broadband this year.
State leaders have already said there will likely be a second special session, but when or what that looks like is not clear. The first special session ended with an impasse and open frustration. We know that Sen. Westrom and Rep. Ecklund will continue to work on this issue and should a second special session be called, there will be another push to get broadband over the finish line.
The bill includes the following funding provisions, all coming from federal CARES Act funding:
- $10 million for Supplemental Broadband Grant Program
- $500k cap per project
- Up to 75% of the project may be funded by the grant
- This funding would be immediately available and separate from $20 million available for full Border-to-Border grant program
- Accelerated timeline, projects must be constructed this summer or fall
- One-time appropriation
- $15 million for technology reimbursement grant program for schools
- Program reimburses schools that have purchased technology for students that don’t have broadband access at home so they may participate in e-learning during the 2019 or 2020 school year.
- Wireless or wire-line technology qualifies.
- One-time appropriation.
- $2 million for telemedicine equipment reimbursement program
- Program reimburses licensed health care providers that purchase technology or software to diagnose and evaluate patients during the pandemic.