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Political Notebook: Broadband funding in political spotlight

Expect funding for broadband infrastructure to be a hot topic in the upcoming legislative session.

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Expect funding for broadband infrastructure to be a hot topic in the upcoming legislative session.

Earlier this month, budget officials announced the state's projected budget surplus had swelled to nearly $1.9 billion. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters on the heels of the surplus news that he'd like $100 million of those dollars dedicated to building broadband infrastructure.

"The Legislature's failure to continue funding for a meaningful, statewide broadband access initiative must be corrected in the next legislative session with a $100 million appropriation," Dayton said. "That's essential to give everyone in Greater Minnesota equal access to the economic future that people in the metropolitan area enjoy."

Meanwhile, Preston Republican Rep. Greg Davids has organized a broadband listening session in Spring Valley next week. Davids said he put the meeting together after hearing from constituents concerned about a lack of reliable high-speed internet in the area.

"As you see people at Big Bob's and you are eating breakfast, you will hear complaints about lack of service, and so I thought, 'You know what? Let's talk about it,'" Davids said. "We need to take a look at it. It's a serious issue for rural Minnesota."

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The meeting will be 1 p.m. Friday at Spring Valley Community Center, 200 S. Broadway St. Assistant House Majority Leader Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, is expect to attend, along with some providers. So what does Davids think about the governor's proposal to set aside $100 million?

"I don't know if that's the magic number, but I'd certainly be open to some broadband funding," Davids said.

One of the biggest champions of broadband funding at the Capitol has been Red Wing DFL Sen. Matt Schmit. He sponsored legislation that established the state's Office of Broadband Development and created the state's broadband grant fund.

Schmit said he is pleased by the governor's pledge of support. Two year ago, he said the governor was skeptical of investing in broadband grants and didn't recommend any funding. Last year, he urged lawmakers to invest $30 million. Now the governor is on board for $100 million in funding.

"This is the kind of momentum growth that we want to see, and we're certainly moving in the right direction," he said.

Schmit said he plans to introduce a bill seeking $100 million for the broadband grant program in the 2016 session. During the past two years, $30 million have been invested in the broadband grant program. He said those grants are expected to provide high-speed internet access to 10,000 households, thousands of businesses and hundreds of community institutions such as schools, hospitals and libraries.

"This is making a real difference in people's lives, and I think it's important to focus on the fact that this has great potential for leveling the playing field between the economic haves and have nots," Schmit said.

The Greater Minnesota Partnership , a nonprofit comprised of businesses, chambers of commerce and cities from throughout Greater Minnesota, has lobbied aggressively at the Minnesota Capitol for broadband funding. The partnerships' executive director, Dan Dorman, said the partnership was happy with Dayton's pledge of support.

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"From just a number's standpoint, it's outstanding news. We thought that's where (the funding) should have been maybe a year or two ago, but OK, we can't back up, so at least we're there," Dorman said.

Looking ahead to the 2016 legislative session, Dorman said it's critical that in addition to money being available, it's critical that the legislation is written in a way to make sure that cities also have a chance at getting a broadband infrastructure grant.

So far, he said those dollars have gone toward rural, hard-to-reach areas instead of being used to upgrade broadband service in a city. Dorman said some lawmakers have suggested that moving head, half of the broadband grant money be set aside for cities and the rest for non-cities. He said the " Gig Austin" proposal to provide high-speed internet in Austin would be an excellent project for the state to fund.

"We'd like to see a couple of really good projects like that one in Austin or something similar get done because I think that would build more momentum to continue the funding in the out years," he said.

Related Topics: FINANCEGREG DAVIDS
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