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Senators weigh rural broadband expansion in light of pandemic

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Minnesota state capitol
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ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers couldn't come to an agreement Wednesday, April 22, on whether to approve new funding for a state program that expands access to broadband internet in places that don't have it.

At the center of their debate is a bill introduced in the state Senate this week that calls for a $10 million transfer to the program in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, the bill's author, said the transfer is needed to address the plight of Minnesotans whose communities do not have reliable internet access but need it in order to live and learn safely under the ongoing, statewide stay at home order.

If enacted as written, the bill would make an additional $10 million in grants available for remote learning and telemedicine equipment. Funding for the broadband program, Westrom said during an online Senate committee hearing Wednesday, would primarily benefit projects in places where families "can’t do their telework like the rest of us can."

But other members of the Senate Finance committee appeared reluctant to support new funding for the broadband program, saying it doesn't necessarily relate to the pandemic. They also took issue with the proposed source of the funding: the state general fund.

Funding for the equipment grant programs would be sourced from the general fund as well.

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It's likely that Minnesota will be reimbursed the cost of combating the pandemic via the federal coronavirus relief act, Senate fiscal analyst Eric Nauman said Wednesday. But that isn't guaranteed — the U.S. Department of the Treasury is still fine-tuning official guidance on how to spend the funds, $1 billion of which it has already given to Minnesota.

Given that Gov. Tim Walz's office predicts the pandemic could disrupt business in Minnesota for up to 18 months, supporters of the bill argued Wednesday that new funding for the broadband program is appropriate.

"What we do now is setting us up for part of the long-term, COVID recovery," Minnesota Telecom Alliance president Brent Christensen told senators Wednesday.

Created in 2014, the broadband program is competitive and provides up to 50% of infrastructure project costs to approved applicants. The most that it can award is $5 million.

The legislature in 2019 approved $40 million in biennial funding for it.

Also debated Wednesday was language in the bill that would require any money left over from the equipment grants be transferred to the broadband program. Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, argued that unclaimed grant money should be returned to the general fund.

"We’re doing things differently with broadband than we’re doing with other COVID money, and I just want us to be aware that that’s the choice we’re making," she said.

Senators on Wednesday briefly considered amending the bill to omit language on the broadband program but instead voted to table it for further discussion. Several senators said that while rural and remote parts of the state are wanting for internet access, they did not wish to address the problem using emergency funds.

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"We all believe that broadband is important. No one is questioning that," Sen. Bobby Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

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