From the MN Broadband Coalition…
2021 MN Rural Broadband Coalition Legislative Report
Good morning all. I hope you had a wonderful Independence Day weekend. The Legislature passed and Gov. Tim Walz signed a new two-year budget in the final days of June. It took a convoluted 6-month process to get the deal done, what MPR News aptly described as a “long, strange trip.” Both the regular and special sessions were conducted remotely, and the public and lobbyists had little, if any, access to lawmakers or staff in person. To top it off, Republicans and DFLers each control a chamber of the Legislature. (Fun fact: Minnesota is the only divided Legislature in the country!)
Despite these challenges, the Legislature got their job done before a government shutdown on July 1. Before we break down the broadband funding and policy, here are some topline issues for you.
- $52 billion two-year budget.
- Tax cuts for businesses receiving PPP loans as well as affordable housing construction.
- 2.45% general formula increase for school funding in the first year, 2% increase in the second year.
- Police reforms, including banning traffic stops for expired tabs or broken turn signals, reduced use of no-knock warrants, and releasing police bodycam footage of deadly force incidents to the deceased’s family within 48 hours.
- Ending the governor’s peacetime emergency powers.
It was a spirited battle between the DFL and Republicans all the way to the end, but they were able to compromise and work together to get a budget that shows bipartisanship is not dead in the State of Minnesota.
Broadband Program Receives $70 million
Of course, the very best news to come out of the 2021 Legislative Session is that the Border-to-Border Grant Program will receive $70 million over the next two years. This is the single-largest investment in the program’s history. Funding was included in the Omnibus Jobs and Economic Development Bill that passed the House 71-62 and the Senate 51-15. The funding will be evenly divided over the next two years.
The funding will come from the American Rescue Plan Act’s Capital Projects Fund. The Office of Broadband Development at DEED must apply to receive the funds from the federal government. Full guidance on the program requirements and application process is forthcoming from the U.S. Treasury.
The coronavirus pandemic showed us what rural Minnesotans have long known to be true: everyone needs access to reliable, high-speed broadband internet. Continued funding of the Border-to-Border program means we will come closer to achieving the state’s statutory speed goal of 100mbps download by 20mbps upload by 2026.
Why the Capital Projects Fund?
This pot of money is different than the State and Local Fiscal Relief funding the federal government sent to Minnesota. The Treasury is not just cutting the state a check. The state must apply to the Treasury outlining all the ways it plans to use the money and request the funds. We believe the Treasury may have stricter standards—whether that’s speeds, technology, or other aspects—than even our grant program. That’s why legislators included language that allows DEED to have a one-time temporary waiver to change the Border-to-Border Grant Program’s rules to comply with federal standards. The last thing we wanted to happen was to have the state’s application rejected for non-compliant state rules. That would be a disaster and likely mean no funding for the upcoming grant cycle.
No Policy Changes or Funding Carveouts to Grant Program!
The Coalition was able to successfully push back against several proposed policy changes as well as protect the fund from carveouts for specific technologies. There were two major proposed changes this year.
First, the proposed addition of “fixed wireless” to the statutory definitions of broadband moved through the committee process in the Senate this year and was included in the Agriculture Conference Committee discussions. However, the House did not support this provision and did not give the bill a hearing during the early part of the legislative session.
Another provision from the Senate would have prevented communities covered by preliminary RDOF auctions from receiving state grant money. As you know, the RDOF program still has not announced its review of long-form applications nor has it sent any money to Minnesota to start building. The Coalition sent a letter to the Office of Broadband last fall asking them to ignore preliminary RDOF auction areas when determining who would receive Border-to-Border grants. Unfortunately, as you know, that request was denied and RDOF areas were locked out of the state grant program. The Senate proposal to put that practice into statute was not included in any bill that passed the Legislature this year.
Rural Electric Easements for Broadband
The Minnesota Rural Electric Association and several other groups successfully advocated for their proposal to allow broadband infrastructure on existing electrical easements. MREA worked with the Association of Minnesota Counties and the League of Minnesota cities, among other organizations to tighten up the language and get it in shape so it could pass both chambers. It was included in the Omnibus Commerce Bill.
Debate Next Year on Pole Attachment Rates
Minnesota Cable Communications Association raised issues with the price of attaching broadband infrastructure to electrical poles, particularly in rural areas, during the debate over the easements bill. Rep. Rob Ecklund, Rep. Jordan Rasmusson, and Rep. Zack Stephenson all agreed during the House floor debate on the easements bill that this would be an issue they will work on next year during the 2022 Legislative Session. The Coalition should be prepared to look at this legislation and discuss it during a legislative committee meeting before next session.