Senate broadband bill of $30 million (for biennium) passes Finance Committee

The MN Senate Republican Caucus reports

Legislation chief-authored by Senator Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake) to fund agriculture, rural development, and affordable work force housing in Minnesota passed the Senate Finance Committee. The comprehensive omnibus budget bill places an emphasis on rural broadband expansion, invests in affordable manufactured/modular housing and home ownership, and prioritizes value-added agriculture opportunities that directly impact farmers.

More on the broadband funding…

Further, the bill funds the Minnesota Border-to-Border Rural Broadband expansion program at $30 million, a significant increase in the legislature’s appropriation over the last biennium.

“From health care, to education, to small businesses, broadband access is essential to our way of life in the twenty-first century,” added Westrom. “I consistently hear from rural community members that a lack of broadband limits their ability to flourish in Greater Minnesota, much like a lack of electricity did 75 years ago. This significant investment addresses this issue head-on.”

 

Lincoln County launches broadband grant application

 

The Marshall Independent reports

The Lincoln County Board gave a green light Tuesday to a county-wide grant application aimed at funding for broadband Internet access.

At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners approved a grant application to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development for a total of $10.5 million. All except $2 million would come from outside funding sources. The county would issue bonds for its matching share.

The grant package will expand upon a plan for a broadband proposal developed by a South Dakota based consultant for the Hendricks area telecommunications exchange. The same consultant will incorporate the rest of the county into a larger grant request.

“It made sense to work together toward one application,” said Vince Robinson, president of the Ivanhoe-based Development Services Inc. consulting service. “That will show that as a county we’re taking a unified approach. We won’t be in a situation where two different applications would compete.”

The total grant amount will be influenced by the level of statewide competition for broadband funding. It will also depend on how much the Minnesota State Legislature allocates.

Robinson said the Minnesota House and Gov. Tim Walz have both offered a funding proposal of $70 million spread out over two years. The Minnesota Senate has countered with a proposal for $30 million in the first year of the biennium, with the possibility of more funding in the second year.

MN House Ways and Means – discusses broadband grants – decides on $70 million for biennium

The meeting begins the process of mining bills and getting them to align with Senate versions. They are working on bills that will incorporate with Jobs Bill to align with Senate. They will be re-referred to tax committee – not directly to the floor.

Rep Ecklund moves HF7 (Broadband grants). There was an amendment to remove $15 million that Rep Layman added in the last meeting. Removing the added funds puts the budget in line with target budget. (Amendment was accepted.)

There was no policy added to the bill. They talked about policy earlier but decided to work on policy next year and focus on funding this year.

Rep Kresha adds that the grants have worked very well and leaving off policy might help them work even better.

Rep Garofalo promotes fixed wireless, cellular and satellite as a viable options. Rep Drazowski agrees with Garofalo.

They also discuss Net Neutrality. There was some concern that providers that got broadband grants from the state would not be required to adhere to  the Net Neutrality clauses that had been put in place – especially when it comes to retransmission fees. (Those are fees charged from fee-based content providers. Also some questions about what had happened to $488,000 cost for Net Neutrality, which had apparently been absorbed into the budget.

 

Senator Sparks wants $70 million for MN broadband grants

The Albert Lea Tribune posts a Senate update from Senator Dan Sparks…

This was a busy week at the state Capitol, with important legislation moving forward, Broadband Day on the Hill and the beginning of omnibus bill discussion in our committees.

He mentions his support for broadband funding…

One priority the governor and I share is on expanding broadband internet access in our rural communities. Wednesday was Broadband Day on the Hill, when advocates from across the state came to the Capitol to lobby for this important investment. Though we’ve made progress on this important issue, we have more work to do to make sure every household, business and school has access to this vital piece of modern infrastructure.

Though the Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Finance Omnibus Bill had some new funding for the Border to Border Broadband program, it does not have enough. The state has a responsibility to make sure every community is connected, which is why I offered an amendment that would provide the $70 million necessary to complete this work in the next two years. Although it was not adopted, I will continue to fight to increase the state investment in this important program.

Technical Assistance Workshops for ReConnect Program in MN May 15-16

From the USDA…

Informational Workshops Scheduled for April and May 2019

USDA has announced the six regional ReConnect Technical Assistance Workshops. These regional workshops will allow applicants to gain a stronger understanding of the application process and program requirements. They will provide stakeholders with information about the funding opportunity announcement released in December 2018, as well as specific details regarding the technical, financial, and program management requirements.

Pre-registration for these events is required. To register, please visit this following link:

The Washington, Pennsylvania workshop was held April 2-3, 2019

Register for the Tucson, Arizona workshop to be held April 9-10, 2019

Register for the Junction City, Kansas workshop to be held April 16-17, 2019

Register for the Welches, Oregon workshop to be held April 23-24, 2019

Register for the Auburn, Alabama workshop to be held May 8-9, 2019

Register for the Alexandria, Minnesota workshop to be held May 15-16, 2019

 

About the ReConnect Program

The ReConnect Program offers loans, grants, and loan/grant combinations to facilitate broadband deployment in areas of rural America without sufficient access to broadband.

  • The awards made under this program will bring high-speed broadband to rural areas that lack sufficient access to broadband.
  • The delivery of broadband connection and high-quality service will enable technologies critical to rural communities, such as precision agriculture.
  • The pilot program will fuel long-term economic development and opportunities in rural America.

 

USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender.

MN Committee on Ag, Rural Dev & Housing Finance discusses omnibus and broadband – broadband budget is $30 million

The Committee met and heard from 20+ testifiers on the omnibus for this committee. The broadband issue in the room is that the House and the Governor have proposed $70 million for broadband. The Senate is promoting $30 million for broadband. Chair Westrom ended the meeting suggesting that he wanted to invest more in broadband but couldn’t without a budget imbalance. BUT the funding is for next year – which opens the door to trying to find further finding next year for the following year.

Two of the testifiers supported broadband – DEED Commissioner Steve Grove and MN Broadband Coalition member Vince Robins. You can see their full testimony in the video below.

Commissioner Grove  recognizes that broadband is an important piece of the Governor’s One Minnesota budget. Broadband is bipartisan because we all want to be the kind of state where you don’t have to move to the city to engage. He notes that we have one of the best state broadband models in the US. Other states look to replicate our work and that our experience tells us we need $35 million ongoing funds to meet the state speed goals. We are disappointed with less than $70 million. If we had $35 million, we would have no problems spending and managing those grants.

Vince Robbins points out that we will not meet state broadband goals with one-time $30M broadband funding. Providers and communities need to be able to plan. Many projects are ready to go. In 2017 we had $50M in requests; many are still out there and new ones have emerged. To recognize the full benefits of broadband in the state – we all need to have it! Those who sell, those you buy; those you hire, those who work; those who teach, those who learn.

Senator Sparks did ask the Committee to reconsider the budget for broadband and to go with $70 million. The issue was that the $70 million pushes the budget beyond the Committee budget. Everyone said they supported broadband funding but some had a greater need to meet the target budget. That being the Legal Analyst pointed out that if the budget left committee unbalanced it would not be accepted OR the finance committee would make any necessary cut. (I have rough notes on that specific conversation below the video – it should be in the video as well – probably soon after the one-hour mark.)

  • Sen Sparks – Supports the $70 million in broadband grant funds.
  • Seb Weber – we have out budget target and we don’t have the authority to increase it. Where will this extra $35 million come from?
  • Sen Dziedzic  – We don’t need to be  balanced coming out of committee
  • Chair Westrom – If we don’t balance they bill – someone else will make the cut
  • Sen Dziedzic  – I would like a roll call on the budget and share – Info from Pages
  • Sen Draheim – I have another bill that goes wireless in another committee. We can talk more about it have Easter Break.
  • Sen Weber – When I was in the minority, I couldn’t suggest something like this. The problems is that we’d have to take the funds out of the Ag Admin accounts. Which do we want – money for Dep of Ag or broadband?
  • Sen Sparks – This is an important program. We all think it is. We know you have targets; we don’t. I will withdraw A18 amendment with the understanding that this may come up again since the Governor’s budget is more.
  • Chair Weber  – OK
  • Sen Sparks – Is there a rule in the Senate that a budget cannot leave Committee over budget? Or is it just not done?
  • There’s not a rule – but it is enforced by finance committee and they will cut it out. They won’t hear the bill if it’s not in balance. All of the chairs in 35 years have enforced the budget. But it’s more a custom, not a rule.
  • Chair Westrom, quoting Sen Rest – Custom and usage is the rule.
  • Sen Sparks – happy to abide by the rule but recognize that sometimes it’s helpful to extend beyond custom.
  • Sen Eken – can we use this in the tails?
    LA Knopff – that will still be flat
  • Sen Dziedzic  – Broadband isn’t just a rural issue. Rural areas impact urban areas. Many of our amendments are similar to the broadband – they don’t maintain the target budget. Can we offer them and vote on them?
  • Chair Westrom – we’re happy to hear the amendments if you can find a place to get the money and maintain the budget.
  • LA Knopff – the chair is the one who upholds the target
  • Sen Draheim – I would like to hear the items and the budget
  • Sen Dziedzic  – I’d like to give the amendments
  • Chair Westrom – ok but if they are out of budget, then they will be found out of order
  • Senators continue to offer amendments (not related to broadband)…

MN Senate Republicans budget one time $30 million investment in broadband

St Paul Pioneer Press reports on three Minnesota State budget proposals currently on the table…

  • Walz wants to spend $49.4 billion, including an increase of 20 cents per gallon on the gas tax and tab fees, as well as an increase in revenue from corporate or individual income taxes over the current situation. Walz also wants to renew a longstanding tax on health care providers that is forecast to bring in about $948 million over the next two years and funds a number of government health insurance programs.
  • House Democrats are generally in line with Walz but want to spend more. Their plan would spend $49.8 billion and feature the 20-cent gas tax hike and a larger increase in income tax revenues, suggesting they might target large corporations. They also support continuing the provider tax.
  • Senate Republicans want to spend $47.6 billion, with no increases in the gas tax or income tax revenues, and they want to allow the provider tax to expire.

The Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus provides some details about what this may mean for broadband…

Senate Republicans will provide access to high speed internet throughout the state with a budget target of $258.3 million. That target includes a one-time boost for broadband technology of $30 million. This Republican budget supports access for farmers to new agriculture innovation and access to affordable housing for our state’s workforce and seniors.

In the meetings I have attended, legislators have been interested in supporting broadband – to terms of $70 million or more. I will anxiously watch to see how these budgets come together. I’m sure we’ll learn more at the Broadband Day on the Hill next week (April 3).