Senator Tina Smith Introduces Bipartisan Bills to Invest in Rural Communities

News from Senator Smith…

Senators’ Legislation Seeks to Spur Rural Broadband Expansion and Make Sure Rural Health Clinics Continue Serving Minnesotans, Americans Across the Nation

WASHINGTON D.C. [04/04/2019]— This week, U.S. Senator Tina Smith helped introduce a pair of bipartisan bills to expand investments in rural communities: one designed to help improve rural broadband, and one to improve rural health care.

Sen. Smith has been contacted by several Minnesota cooperatives—which are a vital part of the effort to build out rural broadband in the state—that are at risk of losing their tax-exempt status due to a mistake in the 2017 tax law. The mistake in the 2017 law put the tax-exempt status of co-ops at risk if they receive government grants to expand broadband or to recover from a natural disaster. The Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands (RURAL) Act, that she introduced with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) would fix that error that hinders rural broadband expansion. Their bill would ensure that co-ops can retain their tax exemptions in efforts to expand rural broadband or in providing relief from, or preparation for, a disaster or emergency.

Right now, there are 96 Rural Health Clinics in Minnesota and over 4,400 across the country, which help provide care to over 7 million people in 47 states. But these clinics are governed by a set of regulations that haven’t been updated in decades. Sens. Smith introduced the bill with Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)—called the Rural Health Clinic Modernization Act—would modernize these decades-old rules that are preventing communities from getting the best possible care at Rural Health Clinics. For example, the legislation would expand the ability of physician assistants and nurse practitioners to provide care in these clinics, and improve the ability of clinics to offer telehealth services.

“At the end of the day, it’s my job to make sure that when Minnesotans tell me what Washington needs to do in order to better work for them, they know that I’m listening and working with fellow lawmakers to get things done on their behalf,” said Sen. Smith. “So when I heard from rural Minnesota cooperatives and health clinics about fixes that need to happen, I got to work. These bipartisan bills are good for people in rural Minnesota, rural Ohio, rural Wyoming—and rural communities across the country. Democrats and Republicans alike supporting efforts to allow rural broadband to keep expanding, and to make sure rural clinics stay open, shows what we can accomplish when we come together with commonsense fixes to make life better for Americans.”

The RURAL Act would revert the tax-exempt issue back to pre-2017 tax bill rules and address longstanding issues with the tax treatment of disaster relief grants, and the Rural Health Clinic Modernization Act would:

  • Ease the physician shortage in rural areas by expanding the ability of physician assistants and nurse practitioners to provide care in Rural Health Clinics;
  • Make sure Rural Health Clinics that are not connected to a hospital—as are many in Minnesota—can still use hospitals’ lab equipment because it’s often more cost-effective for these clinics to use the hospitals’ lab equipment;
  • Increase the cap on the amount that Rural Health Clinics are able to bill Medicare for services; and
  • Remove a restriction that prevents clinicians at Rural Health Clinics from providing services via telehealth.

Coop broadband noted as a Forces that will Shape the U.S. Rural Economy in 2019

CoBank recently listed 11 forces that they feel will shape the rural economy in this year. Broadband, especially provided by cooperatives, makes the list…

In 2019, electric distribution cooperatives will continue to build out fiber networks in underserved rural markets. Some rural communications providers are concerned about increasing competition, but CoBank continues to believe that over 90 percent of co-op fiber builds occur where service does not exist or is below the FCC standards for broadband.

Register for Third Annual MN Broadband Day on the Hill

From the MN Broadband Coalition…

Your participation is vital.  This is your chance to meet directly with legislators, share your stories about the importance of broadband to economic vitality and quality of life – especially in rural areas – and address the need for broadband investments.

We are planning a full day of activities to ensure that you will feel confident and well prepared to meet your representatives, satisfied that your time and energy were well spent, more connected with fellow advocates, and inspired to keep working.

Interested?
Click here to register.  The fee is $25 per person.

Where?
Minnesota State Capitol – L’Etoile du Nord Vault
(Room B15 – in the basement)

When?
April 3, 2019 (8:30 a.m. Start – Full agenda for the day will be available soon!)

Lodging

We have reserved a block of 25 rooms for the night of April 2, 2019, at the discounted government rate.  RESERVE YOUR ROOM BY FRIDAY, MARCH 15, to receive the group rate.

To book your room call: 651-227-8711

Best Western Capitol Ridge (formerly the Kelly Inn)
161 St. Anthony Ave
St. Paul, MN 55103

Group Code: MNAPR2

How to Schedule Your Meetings With Legislators
Use the following link to access our easy guide on How to Schedule Your Meetings With Legislators.
If you have any questions, concerns, or need help scheduling your legislator meetings, please contact Nathan Zacharias.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are scheduling your own meetings, make sure to do so at the time you register for the Day on the Hill. Legislators’ schedules fill up quickly. If you don’t schedule far enough in advance, it will be difficult to get a meeting.

US Senate Committee Announces Hearing on America’s Infrastructure Needs – Feb 13

Looks interesting and there’s a link to the livestream at the bottom…

WASHINGTON –  U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, will convene a hearing titled, “America’s Infrastructure Needs: Keeping Pace with a Growing Economy,” at approximately 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday, February 13, 2019. The exact start time is contingent on the conclusion of an earlier and separate Commerce Committee business meeting that will be open to the public in the same hearing room. The hearing will focus on opportunities for infrastructure improvement, including federal funding, financing programs, and permitting and regulatory streamlining.

Witnesses:

  • Mr. William Friedman, Chairman, American Association of Port Authorities, President and Chief Executive Officer, Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority
  • Mr. Ian Jefferies, President and Chief Executive Officer, Association of American Railroads
  • Mr. Matthew Polka, President and Chief Executive Officer, American Cable Association
  • Mr. Chris Spear, President and Chief Executive Officer, American Trucking Association
  • Mr. Larry Willis, President, Transportation Trades Department

Hearing Details:

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

10:15 a.m.

Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

This hearing will take place in the Dirksen Senate Office Building G50. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.

Energy Cooperatives promote broadband as bipartisan goal

The Post Bulletin published a letter to the editor from Brian Krambeer and Jim Matheson. Brian Krambeer is the President/CEO of MiEnergy Cooperative. Jim Matheson is CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national service organization that represents the nation’s more than 900 not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives. They see broadband as a necessary tool for rural communities and a common ground for bipartisan support…

Pursuing policies to expand rural broadband access and close the digital divide present an opportunity for congressional Republicans and Democrats to work together for the benefit of rural America.

Twenty-three million rural Americans lack access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission, and millions of them are electric co-op members. That’s why more than 100 electric cooperatives are working to close the digital divide by bringing broadband to their communities. Even more are exploring the option.

Why do the energy coops care?

As an electric cooperative, MiEnergy needs a high-speed data network to operate a modern electric distribution system. MiEnergy members and area residents need broadband to run their farms and businesses and enhance educational opportunities for their children. In addition, broadband access opens up opportunities for members to use smart appliances, implement energy management solutions, and enhance their quality of life. Broadband is as important today as rural electrification was in the 1930s.

What is being done?

Some important strides have been made in the past year to promote rural broadband deployment. Congress last year approved a $600 million U.S. Department of Agriculture rural broadband pilot program, and 35 electric co-ops will receive $225 million over 10 years through an FCC broadband funding auction.

In addition, the 2018 Farm Bill establishes a new federal program to finance the development of retail broadband in rural areas. The program authorizes $350 million a year for a combination of grants and loans.

What more can be done?

Congress should explore an expanded combination of grants and loans that build on these pilot programs and allow rural communities access to telelearning, telemedicine and a 21st-century economy. Equally important is the need for Congress to support more accurate reporting of broadband coverage data, and ensure a realistic picture of service gaps. Current coverage data is self-reported by providers and unverified.

The agony of rural broadband, the thrill of making it happen

This week City Pages has a nice feature on rural broadband. A good wake up for those of us in the Cities who aren’t living on the frontlines of slow Internet. They do a good job telling the stories…

Outside nearby Gibbon, Linda Kramer endured a similar fix. Her family grows corn, soybeans, and wheat, while her husband also works as a crop consultant. He’d attempt to send field data to clients, only to watch it take days to upload. So he’d find himself driving 40 miles just to deliver thumb drives.

“We weren’t being able to accomplish what people in the cities or other rural areas were able to accomplish,” Kramer says.

Their problems weren’t unique. Across hulking swaths of Minnesota, gas stations struggle to run credit cards. Counties see scant hope of nursing new businesses. And everyone worries the evacuation of their young will only accelerate. Forgive college grads who can’t see futures in places where it takes hours to load an Instagram photo.

They highlight a solution that is working in Renville and Sibley Counties…

Winthrop—population 1,399—was too small to build a high-speed fiber system on its own. So it resorted to a spirit of socialism practiced a century ago, the kind that brought electricity, phone lines, and farm cooperatives to the Minnesota backcountry.

It would seem a despairing quest. Sibley County is in the heart of Trumpland. “Out here, we’re quite conservative,” says Erickson. “When the Republican Party says something, people listen.”

Yet the resulting campaign would exhibit a savvy and insistence few lefty activists could match. It involved 10 cities and 17 townships across Renville and Sibley counties. Over 100 educational meetings spanning two years. Seventy volunteers to carry the load.

The final outcome: RS Fiber, a co-op that delivers better internet than most Twin Citians receive.

And the difference fast broadband has made…

For Jacob Rieke, it means no longer fearing for his daughters’ schooling. He can now employ all the weaponry of precision farming, saving between $5,000 and $20,000 annually on seed costs alone.

For Linda Kramer, it means getting 10 times the speed of her old service for the same price, allowing her family to be “good stewards of the land.” An ability to read the subtleties of a field prevents over-fertilizing, which has left most southwest Minnesota waterways too toxic for swimming. “The technology is really allowing people to do good things.”

RS is also fostering commerce. A new 3D printer business in Gibbon can send data-heavy files to clients. An industrial electrician in Winthrop does work all over the world.

They talk about Windomnet too, another innovative approach to service in rural areas…

Fortune’s success comes courtesy of Windomnet, among the nation’s first city-owned internet concerns. The company’s databases handle orders 24/7, a task impossible in much of outstate, since time-outs and dropped connections corrupt files, turning orders into horrors.

And Paul Bunyan…

The same thing could be said of Bemidji, home to Paul Bunyan Communications. It began as a telephone co-op in the 1950s, eventually moving on to TV and internet across multiple counties. “They’re really transforming that entire region,” says Coleman. “It’s becoming a high-technology center.”

And Lake Connections…

Lake County rode to the rescue. It created Lake Connections, with the unforgiving task of bringing broadband to 11,000 residents scattered across 2,100 square miles, an enterprise no private company would attempt.

 

$43.7 Million in USDA Smart Grid Funding, Could Help Drive More Rural Broadband: 3 projects in MN

Telecompetitor reports…

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $43.7 million in funding for rural smart grid projects. The USDA smart grid funding was part of a broader announcement of a total of $398.5 million to improve rural electric service in 13 states. The funding came in the form of low-interest loans.

The USDA smart grid funding could be good news for rural broadband providers, as smart grid projects rely on advanced communications infrastructure and rather than build that infrastructure themselves, some electric companies partner with broadband providers for that purpose. In some cases, this can help build a business case for fiber deployment to support broadband services in areas where it previously was not economically feasible.

At least one rural electric company in the latest group of funding recipients has partnered previously with a small rural broadband provider.  Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative partnered with Consolidated Telephone Company on a previous buildout.

The need to deploy communications infrastructure to support the smart grid also is spurring some rural electric cooperatives to become broadband service providers themselves.

They list the award recipients; here are the three from MN:

  • Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MN)
  • Red River Valley Cooperative Power Association (MN)
  • Federated Rural Electric Association (MN)

And more info on the MN projects

Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative received $15,000,000 loan.
This Rural Development investment will add 575 consumers, build 42 miles of line, improve 38 miles and make other system improvements. The loan amount includes $2,961,860 for smart grid projects.  Mille Lacs Energy is headquartered in Aitkin. It serves about 15,150 consumers in Aitkin, Crow Wing and Mille Lacs counties.  The economy of the territory is principally based on tourism, recreational activities and light industry.

 

Red River Valley Cooperative Power Association received $8,000,000 loan.
This Rural Development investment will add 414 consumers, build 47 miles of line, improve 44 miles and make other system improvements.  The loan amount includes $1,545,000 for smart grid projects.  Red River Valley is headquartered in Halstad.  It serves 4,606 customers over 1,802 miles of line in Clay, Norman and Polk counties in northwestern Minnesota. The economy of the service area is primarily agricultural.

 

Federated Rural Electric Association received $4,500,000 loan.
This Rural Development investment will add 100 consumers, build 19 miles of line, improve 32 miles and make other system improvements. The loan amount includes $1,798,500 for smart grid projects.  Federated is headquartered in Jackson. It provides electric service to 6,789 consumers in seven counties in southern Minnesota and four counties in northwestern Iowa.  The service territory is primarily agricultural.