So what does the end of MN special session mean for broadband funding?

Most of what I learned about the legislative process, I learned from Schoolhouse Rock – I’m just a Bill. Maybe the part of special sessions was in the second verse.

But here we are waiting for word on a special session. The broadband bill had passed in the Senate but was left on the table when the Senate adjourned in the early morning of June 20. What do we know? MinnPost recently posted Five Things we Learned

  1. There were actually two sessions. Neither was successful.
  2. Everything at the Legislature is connected
  3. Negotiating bills has come to resemble the settling a lawsuit — or the bargaining of a union contract
  4. 4. Legislators continue to tell time differently from other people
    (I’ll add the explanation here; I’ve witnessed it but reading it helped me realize it wasn’t me…) The legislative day in Minnesota runs not from midnight to midnight but from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. Lawmakers state that fact as though it is the most logical way of looking at time — and something that everyone knows and accepts.
  5. There are two different scenarios for the next special session

It’s the fifth point that I think it most helpful…

There remains plenty of work to be done at the Legislature this year: police accountability; a bonding bill; money to help counties, cities and townships respond to COVID-19; tax changes; and a supplemental budget.

All of it was left on the table Saturday morning. Walz can either call a special session if and when a deal is reached on those issues. Or everyone can wait until his likely extension of the peacetime emergency, on or around July 12, at which point he’ll be forced to call the Legislature back in order to give them a chance, once again, to rescind the emergency powers extension.

But all of that is subject to negotiation. And each presents different scenarios.

An early session gives Walz some ability to bargain the timing and subject matter of the session. He can condition his summons on an agreement with both chambers and both parties and avoid having another extension steal attention. But because the GOP knows he must bring them back into session sometime in mid-July, they can also wait for better terms.

That said, Gazelka repeatedly lamented that sessions called under the emergency powers law don’t provide something most humans need: a deadline. So a negotiated, one-day session, might fit his needs.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman wanted the Legislature to remain in session until a policing deal — and an everything-else deal — could be accomplished. That might include recesses with no formal legislative action but still involve continuing talks. And while Hortman and Walz criticised Gazelka’s deadline as artificial, they also said it helped focus lawmakers.

Said Hortman: “It got everybody’s butts in gear.”

The wild card is the 2020 election. All 201 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot with high stakes for state and legislative politics. If the Republicans can hold on to the Senate, they are guaranteed a voice in the 2021 session, especially decisions about redistricting. If the DFL can hold the House and win the Senate, their need to work out compromises ends.

With campaigns already in full force, whenever a session is held it will be as much about messaging as legislating.

Charter Communications extends network in Rosemount (Dakota County)

Sun this Week reports…

Charter Communications has announced a $1 million construction project to bring its fiber-optic network nearly 265 homes in the northwestern part of Rosemount.

As part of Minnesota’s Broadband Grant Program, Charter was awarded a $500,000 grant to expand its services to 40 unserved and 225 underserved locations in the northwestern Rosemount area.

Charter contributed $450,000 and Dakota County added $50,000, bringing the total investment to $1 million.

Expected to be completed by this fall, residents in these locations will have access to the company’s Spectrum Internet, Spectrum TV, Spectrum Voice, and Spectrum Mobile services.

Spectrum Internet offers starting speeds of 200 Mbps and connections up to 1 gigabit per second — exceeding the state’s speed goals for 2022 and 2026 — with no modem fees, data caps or contracts.

MN Rural Broadband Coalition: Legislature Adjourns, No Deal on Additional Broadband Funding – May 18, 2020

From the MN Broadband Coalition…

Legislature Adjourns, No Deal on Additional Broadband Funding
Saint Paul, Minn.—The final seconds ticked off the clock of the 2020 Legislative Session on Sunday, May 17, but lawmakers weren’t able to finalize a deal to send additional funding to the Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program. Competing proposals were debated by the House and Senate in the final two weeks of the session. The Senate passed SF 4494 on May 4 and sent it to the House for consideration. The House amended SF 4494 to reflect their priorities in the Ways and Means Committee on May 15 and moved it to the House floor. There, it awaited legislators to negotiate an agreement that would resolve the differences between the House and Senate positions.
The differences are small but make the two bills drastically different. Both chambers agreed that $10 million should go to the broadband grant program. But they disagreed on how to fund it.
The Senate proposal said broadband funding must qualify for the federal coronavirus relief funds or the appropriation would be cancelled. The House proposal also had broadband funding come from the federal coronavirus relief account, but would spend $10 million from the state’s general fund to cover the appropriation if it didn’t qualify for federal relief dollars. Negotiations between key legislators were ongoing through the final days of session. However, a deal that could pass both chambers and receive Governor Walz’s signature never materialized. The bill would have increased available funding for the upcoming round of grants from $20 million to $30 million.
(Note: A full breakdown of SF 4494 is included at the end of this update.)
Governor, Legislature Eye June 12 For Special Session
Legislative work is likely not done for the year. Broadband was far from the only item that legislators needed more time to settle their differences. An agreement on the state’s biennial infrastructure bill—known at the Capitol as the bonding bill—fell apart on the final day of session. Both the House DFL and Senate GOP majorities brought up bonding bills in their chambers, but neither were able to get the 3/5 majority votes required for passage. Housing, COVID-19 relief, and state employee contracts are just a few other outstanding items.
Legislators indicated on the final day of session that they would need to reconvene to finish their work, possibly as soon as June 12. House and Senate leadership and the Governor expressed their interest in scheduling a special session, but only the Governor can call legislators back to the Capitol now that they’ve adjourned for the year. June 12 is also the day Governor Walz’s emergency powers will expire. If he wants to extend the emergency powers for an additional 30 days on June 12, he will need to call the Legislature back to session so they can vote on the extension. The extension would be approved unless both the House and Senate vote against it, which is unlikely. We should know more about the details of a special session in the coming days, so stay tuned.

SF 4494 Details

Senate Proposal

  • $10 million for Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program
    • Funding must come from coronavirus relief account.
    • If it does not qualify, the appropriation is cancelled.
    • Focuses dollars on unserved areas of the state.
    • One-time appropriation.
  • $8 million for technology reimbursement grant program for schools
    • Funding must come from coronavirus relief account.
    • If it does not qualify, the appropriation is cancelled.
    • Grant applications from the following areas are prioritized:
      • Location of school to an unserved area of the state
      • Percent of students that live in a household without broadband
      • Percent of students that receive their internet service through the school
    • 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 2019-2020 school year.
    • Wireless or wire-line technology qualifies.
    • One-time appropriation.
  • $2 million for telemedicine equipment reimbursement program
    • Funding must come from coronavirus relief account.
    • If it does not qualify, the appropriation is cancelled.
    • Program reimburses licensed health care providers that purchase technology or software to diagnose and evaluate patients during the pandemic.
    • One-time appropriation.

House Proposal

  • $10 million for Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program
    • Funding must come from coronavirus relief account.
    • If it does not qualify, general fund will be used.
    • Focuses dollars on unserved areas of the state.
    • One-time appropriation.
  • $15 million for technology reimbursement aid program for schools
    • Funding must come from coronavirus relief account.
    • If it does not qualify, general fund will be used.
    • Every school in the state is eligible, regardless if they are near unserved areas.
    • A school is eligible for an amount equal to one of the following, whichever is less:
      • The school’s expenditures for technology to connect students
      • $15 million divided by statewide enrollment times the number of students enrolled in the applying school.
    • Wireless or wire-line technology qualifies.
    • One-time appropriation.
  • $2 million for telemedicine equipment reimbursement program
    • Funding must come from coronavirus relief account.
    • If it does not qualify, general fund will be used.
    • Program reimburses licensed health care providers that purchase technology or software to diagnose and evaluate patients during the pandemic.

One-time appropriation.

Rosemount to extend better broadband to NE Rosemount in Dakota County

Patch of Apple Valley-Rosemount reports an update on Charter’s MN broadband grant project in Rosemount…

Charter Communications, Inc. today announced a $1 million construction project to bring its advanced fiber-optic network nearly 265 homes in the northwestern part of Rosemount in Dakota County.

As part of Minnesota’s Broadband Grant Program, Charter was awarded a $500,000 grant to expand its services to 40 unserved and 225 underserved locations in the northwestern Rosemount area. Charter contributed $450,000 and Dakota County added $50,000, bringing the total investment to $1 million. …

Expected to be completed by this fall, residents in these locations will have access to the company’s full suite of Spectrum Internet®, Spectrum TV®, Spectrum Voice®, and Spectrum Mobile™ services. Spectrum Internet offers starting speeds of 200 Mbps and connections up to 1 gigabit per second — exceeding the state’s speed goals for 2022 and 2026 — with no modem fees, data caps or contracts.

Broadband still on table at MN Leg but some differences in Senate and House

Duluth News Tribune reports on the MN House…

The House of Representatives has teed up a $208 million package last week with funding for housing assistance for those struggling to make rent or mortgage payments due to the pandemic, small business loans, broadband expansion and a pay raise for personal care attendants.

And the Senate…

The Senate has also taken up and advanced measures aimed at boosting funding for housing assistance and expanding broadband for telehealth and distance learning, but those measures have different price tags and details that would require negotiations to even out differences.

It’s good to be on the table but as the Tribune points out there are some differences.

Sen Sparks talks up broadband support in MN Senate

The Albert Lea Tribune posts a Senate Report by Senator Dan Sparks…

One need in rural areas that has been underscored by COVID-19 is broadband internet access. Never before has it been so clear that fast, reliable internet is a public good that every Minnesotan deserves. Yet, thousands of people continue to lack access to broadband, including many students who have now switched to distance learning and patients who must use telemedicine to see their doctor.

On Monday, the Senate moved forward on legislation to help address some of these issues. The bill creates a long-distance learning broadband access program through the Department of Education to provide access to those students with internet access issues during the COVID-19 peacetime emergency. It also establishes a telemedicine equipment reimbursement grant program for eligible applicants to acquire telemedicine equipment to serve patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also provided an additional $10 million for border-to-border broadband grants targeting unserved areas.

$27 million in broadband funding passes in the MN House

The Minnesota Star Tribune reports…

Minnesota Democrats in the House are pushing for a $208 million housing and economic assistance package, teeing up end-of-session negotiations with Senate Republicans over whether targeted aid or tax relief is the best way to help Minnesotans struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.

The DFL proposal passed the House 75-58 Thursday on a largely party-line vote. It would pump $100 million into rent, mortgage, utility-bill and property-tax assistance. Another $55 million would fund grants for small and minority-owned businesses. It also includes $27 million in broadband access to expand telemedicine and help families in rural areas with distance learning, as well as $26 million to help compensate personal care assistants helping vulnerable people during the pandemic.

You can see the discussion on the house:

There were a few questions/comments:

  • Rep Kresha emphasized his focus on unserved (versus underserved) areas.
  • Re Kresha offers recommendation to build up 5G in urban areas to reach school kids in certain areas
  • Neither amendment was accepted

Now it’s a matter of seeing what happens in the Senate. The Senate passed something similar last week with at least one big difference and that’s the origin of the $10 million for broadband grants. Both House and Senate make federal funding first choice for broadband; right now only the House offers a state funding option if federal doesn’t manifest.

MN Rural Broadband Coalition Legislative Update: House Passes Broadband Funding

From the MN Broadband Coalition

House Passes COVID-19 Relief Package, Broadband Funding
Saint Paul—The Minnesota House of Representatives passed HF 1507—the COVID-19 Economic Security Act— (75-58) on Thursday, May 7. Rep. Zack Stephenson’s (DFL-Coon Rapids) bill includes the following items:

  • $15 million for distance learning technology reimbursement grants.
  • $2 million for telemedicine technology and software reimbursement grants.
  • $10 million broadband infrastructure grants in unserved areas.
  • Temporary 15% pay increase for personal care assistants during the pandemic.
  • $55 million in small-business emergency loans.
  • $100 million for eviction and mortgage foreclosure protection and emergency housing assistance.

The language in HF 1507 is similar to the language in SF 4494 that was passed 66-0 by the Senate on May 4. There are two major differences between the two bills. First, the $10 million for broadband grants will come from the federal coronavirus relief account if it qualifies, but would be spent from the general fund if it does not. SF 4494 would cancel the appropriation if it doesn’t qualify for the federal funds. Second, the distance learning portion in HF 1507 is $15 million compared to the $8 million in SF 4494.
Now that the House has passed the bill, it will be sent to the Senate. However, there is currently no Senate companion with the spending and language included in HF 1507. The Senate hasn’t yet indicated if they will be taking up HF 1507 or if they will be assembling their own similar COVID-19 relief package.
There is still a chance that the House will pass a standalone broadband bill to match up with SF 4494 before the end of this year’s legislative session. Rep. Rob Ecklund’s (DFL-International Falls) HF 3029, a bill that includes the broadband, education, and telemedicine portions of HF 1507, has been sent to the House Ways and Means Committee where it awaits action by the committee.
We will continue to monitor these bills and update you as the end of session approaches.

MN Senate Passes Bill to Boost Rural Broadband

From the Senate…

A bill that would provide $20 million dollars in grants for broadband expansion in rural areas won the unanimous support of the Senate Monday, May 4.

Sponsored by Senator Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, the bill would provide $8 million dollars to support access to high-speed internet for students involved in distance-learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, $2 million dollars in grants would be available to support the purchase of equipment to address COVID-19-related telehealth services in rural areas, and $10 million dollars would provide permanent high-speed internet to unserved rural and urban areas of the state.

It’s worth noting that when they spoke about

MN Rural Broadband Coalition Legislative Update: Broadband Funding – May 1, 2020

From the MN Broadband Coalition

Memo To:           MRBC Members
Memo From:      Nathan Zacharias
Re:                       Broadband Funding
Date:                   5/1/2020
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.

MN House broadband bill rolled into HF1507 and moved to House Floor

Today the Ways and Means heard from Representative Ecklund on HF 3029 (Broadband development grant program annual statutory appropriation provided, and money appropriated). Ecklund’s bill was rolled into HF1507, as stated on the Ways & Means page…

BILL REMOVED: HF 3029 (Ecklund) Broadband development grant program annual statutory appropriation provided, and money appropriated (pending referral)
NOTE: A decision has been made to package the four COVID-19 bills that were the agenda into a larger COVID-19 Economic Security Act package. HF 1507 will be the vehicle. A series of motions to move the language adopted in the individual bills into HF 1507 as separate articles will be made before HF 1507 moves out to General Register. At this point, HF 3029 (Ecklund) remains in the Rules Committee. The broadband proposal will be offered as an amendment to HF 1507.

The bill provides:

  • $10 million for broadband grants
  • $15 million for schools for distance education (up from original $8 million)
  • $2 million for telehealth

Talking points seemed to be:

  • Concern for where the money is coming from general funds or will federal CARES funding reimburse State.
  • Confusion about if money goes to DEED or Department of Education; only the portion for broadband grants would be distributed through the Office of Broadband Development to end users.
  • Wondering if funding for schools would serve all schools or just schools in unserved areas

There is a similar bill in the Senate (SF4494) that passed to Senate Floor on April 30, 2020.

There is clearly frustration from legislators working with the new online system, which makes the discussion on how to serve students who are suddenly working all-online – or at least remotely where online isn’t viable – so poignant.

Mainstream media following broadband bills in MN Legislature

I’ve been following the latest with broadband in the MN Senate and House. It’s nice to see that mainstream media is keeping tabs too:

New Ulm’s KNUJ reports…

With more people working from home, the demand for reliable internet access has skyrocketed in Minnesota and Minnesota lawmakers are working on a bill to help. The proposal would dedicate $8 million for a distance learning broadband access grant program, which would help schools get reimbursed for distance learning technology, and $2 million for a telemedicine equipment reimbursement grant program, used to reimburse health care providers that have purchased equipment to for telehealth visits. The proposal has passed one hurdle in the House. It now heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.

KTOE reports…

A bill is moving forward at the State Capitol that would establish a Distance Learning Broadband Access Grant Program. The program is aimed at getting people in Greater Minnesota the access they need to high-speed internet during COVID-19 and beyond.

“COVID-19 has shown the need for broadband now more than ever, working, learning, or receiving healthcare remotely is impossible without it.”

Democratic Representative Rob Ecklund of International Falls. The bill would allocate $10 million for border-to-border broadband, $8 million to reimburse schools and $2 million to reimburse healthcare workers utilizing broadband.

KAAL reports…

A Minnesota House committee is revisiting the topic of border-to-border broadband.

The proposal in front of legislators would take $10-million and establish a distance learning access grant and a telemedicine equipment grant for rural Minnesota.

An additional $10-million would be used as an incentive for existing internet providers to build-up areas in unserved and under-served parts of the state.

The bill now heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Fox 9 reports…

Minnesota lawmakers push for increased broadband for distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [and video]

Additions on April 30…

Faribault Daily News

Approved in committee by a bipartisan vote, the new legislation is designed to boost access to high-speed internet in the long term while helping to ensure that schools and local health care facilities have the technological resources they need.

KTOE

Earlier this week, a key House committee approved a bill to increase funding for high-speed broadband internet across the state. The bill invests $10 million in the state’s Border-to-Border broadband program, provides $8 million in a new distance learning broadband program and $2 million to reimburse health care providers and counties that purchase and install telemedicine equipment to provide COVID-19-related health care services.

EVENT May 1: MN House Ways & Means to discuss broadband HF3029

Coming up on Friday…

Friday, May 01, 2020 , 9:45 AM
Ways and Means
Chair: Rep. Lyndon Carlson
Location: Remote hearing
Agenda:

This meeting is scheduled until 12:45 if necessary.

This remote hearing is taking place under Rule 10.01, which you may view here: https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/cco/rules/permrule/1001.htm
I. HF 3029 (Ecklund) Broadband development grant program annual statutory appropriation provided, and money appropriated (pending referral)
II. HF 1507 (Stephenson) Minnesota investment fund grant program limits modified, job training grant program modified, and money appropriated
III. HF 168 (Schultz) Temporary PCA rate increase during COVID-19 emergency (pending referral)
IV. HF 4541 (Hausman) COVID-19; eviction and mortgage foreclosure protection and emergency housing assistance provided during a public health emergency, report required, penalties for false statements provided, and money appropriated
Other bills may be added
Meeting documents will be posted on the Ways and Means website at https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/Committees/Home/91014

This remote hearing may be viewed live via the following methods:
1) Live stream via House website: https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/live/1
2) Facebook Live: https://www.facebook.com/MNHouseInfo/
3) YouTube: https://youtu.be/RpbRvaeDjdc

MN Senate moves broadband bill SF4494 out of Finance Committee to Senate Floor

Right about the same time the MN Broadband Task Force met today, the Senate Committee on Finance also met to discuss Senator Westrom’s SF4494 bill: COVID-19 telemedicine equipment grant program establishment; distance learning broadband access grant program establishment; appropriations.

On the highest level – the bill intends to provide funding for broadband via:

  • $8 million for a technology reimbursement grant program for schools
  • $2 million for telemedicine equipment reimbursement program
  • $10 million to the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program

The discussion today related to the latest amendment. It was a delete all amendment, which shifted source for the $10 million to broadband grants to federal funding. (Paid in advance by MN, and paid back when federal funds come in.) Also there’s a focus on unserved areas over underserved to receive funding. They also removed a first-come, first-served approach to applications.

The irony of the meeting happened when Senator Westrom’s broadband connection kept cutting out. He turned off his video, which can be a good fix for participating in online conversation, Unfortunately regulation requires that the speaker be seen as well as heard during these State policy discussions.

Q: with changes on school-related access, which school districts will be impacted?
A: the hope is to reach unserved areas.

The intention is to allow for the schools to come up with quick fixes but that the grants remain for long-term solutions.

There is a lot of discussion on unserved vs underserved which morphed into a discussion on affordability for households especially since affordability is a concern that straddles urban and rural counties. Some want affordability to be as important as accessibility – especially when it comes to providing access to students. Some think the Office of Broadband Development focuses strictly on deployment.

There was some recognition that more funding would solve the debate between accessible and affordable.

There was some discussion on the importance of tracking and allowing “mobile wireless” with the grants.

They vote and the bill goes to the Floor.

Brainerd Dispatch doubles down on Duluth view that broadband is a basic today as plumbing and electricity

Brainerd Dispatch quotes from a recent Duluth New Tribune Editorial to make the case that ubiquitous broadband is more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic and we need legislators to fund better broadband in rural areas…

As the News Tribune has opined, this pandemic is forcing all of us to focus on basics. And if it wasn’t clear before, it is now: Reliable internet is as basic today as indoor plumbing and electricity were a century ago. So, St. Louis County, RAMS, the Minnesota Legislature and other governmental entities can be held accountable for rising above politics and for following through on bolstering broadband.