Broadband funding pieces start falling into place

Published 10:11 am Thursday, April 28, 2016

ST. PAUL — Nearly a year’s worth of legislative wrangling over how much to spend on broadband Internet development started to come together Wednesday, as the Minnesota House took up a budget bill setting the mark at $40 million.

The funding for high-speed Internet has been at the forefront in Minnesota as a way to invigorate rural areas that have little connectivity. The debate spilled over into 2016 after last year’s legislative session concluded, as both parties agreed the Legislature should add to a $10 million infusion.

House Republicans’ supplemental budget would set aside $40 million for broadband, though half of that would be withheld for more than a year and could be reversed by the Legislature next year. A separate bill passed earlier this week allocated another $7 million to fund WiFi hotspots in rural schools.

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“The goal of this broadband legislation … is to get to unreached areas,” said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. “We need to try to get to them first.”

The broadband budget bill passed 72-54 Wednesday. It sets up a clash with Democrats, who say much more money is needed to help rural communities.

Senate Democrats were expected to take up a budget bill Thursday that would plow $85 million into broadband grants. Gov. Mark Dayton set the bar even higher, requesting $100 million for the state fund that doles out Internet infrastructure funding.

“Broadband is the great economic equalizer in rural Minnesota,” Dilworth Democratic Rep. Paul Marquart said before the debate began Wednesday. “When you underfund this important area … this is going to leave us at a huge disadvantage.”

Republicans defended the scope of their proposals, arguing it would allow communities to leverage private support and federal grants that would add up to $250 million in available funding. And unlike the Senate, Republicans aren’t tapping a $900 million budget surplus to boost broadband spending.