Governor Dayton came out with a laundry list of priorities he wants to see tackled in a special session including expansion of rural broadband. The funding would be a part of the omnibus jobs bill that was one of the three large bills vetoed by the Governor.
A $20 million fund taxpayer-funded grant program was created in 2014 for rural Minnesota and Dayton wanted another $30 million this session for the program, the final bill provided $12 million. Last year the Governor rejected the larger $100 million funding request for rural broadband because the plan “lacked details about specific projects,” and while the grant program provides no greater detail than it did last year, the Governor wants additional funding to be included in new budget negotiations.
Rural cities have their own powerful taxpayer-funded lobbying force at the Capitol that is pushing for additional broadband funding in special session. The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is funded by dues paid by rural towns and spends big-bucks at the Capitol for their agenda. The lobbying organization spent $835,674 in 2013 alone per the Pioneer Press with a staff of twelve, including former House Minority leader Marty Seifert. The group was supportive of the $200 million in funding recommended by the Governor’s broadband task force chaired by former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
Minnesota Watchdog recently reported about a broadband project in northern Minnesota that was funded out of the 2009 federal stimulus. Per www.watchdog.org, the Lake County Connections network has already spent 60% of a $66.5 million federal loan and grant and has failed to complete a broadband network north of Duluth. The federal funding ends in September, so local officials have approved an additional $15 million in local taxpayer funds to fast-track the completion. When it’s done, the government-paid network will compete with existing providers.
Minnesota Public Radio reported in 2012 that a total of $200 million had been poured into Minnesota from the federal stimulus programs for broadband projects.
Critics of the spending, like House Job Growth and Energy Affordability chair Rep Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, point out that the hard-wired networks will eventually be replaced by satellite and that wireless connections will bridge any connectivity gaps in the near future.
According to the FCC’s National Broadband map, Minnesota ranks above average nationally for access to broadband across the state. Still, it’s likely that additional funds will be added to the $42 billion biennial budget as the legislature heads to special session next week.