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Political Notebook: Dayton now willing to support broadband fund

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After initially criticizing a grant program for high-speed internet in rural Minnesota, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said he has been convinced it is important to fund the initiative this year.

Broadband supporters want lawmakers to allocate $100 million toward helping expanding high-speed internet into rural parts of the state. Dayton did not include funding for the program in his budget and had originally raised concerns about the plan having a lack of specifics. But he told reporters he supports including some level of funding for broadband this year.

"I have believed all along it's important to do," Dayton said. "Like so many things, it is intricate and complex and complicated. I don't want to throw money at it. I want us to be intentional about how we do it and then let's do it."

Dayton did not say what level of funding he would support for broadband, but it would be less than the $100 million supporters want. Instead, he said he supports providing enough money to get the grant program started. If it proves to an effective strategy for increasing access to high-speed internet, then advocates can point to those results and come back next year for additional dollars.

"They need to start modestly and then prove the effectiveness of what they are doing," he said.

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The Minnesota House approved a supplemental budget with $25 million for the broadband fund. Last week, the Senate passed its own supplemental budget without any broadband funding.

Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities President Randy Wilson issued a statement last week criticizing both the Senate and governor for not doing enough to support rural issues like broadband.

"We expected leadership from the governor on broadband and other issues that are important to Greater Minnesota. So far this session, the Minnesota House has been the one arm of state government to lead with a rural agenda," said Wilson, who is also mayor of Glencoe.

The Greater Minnesota Partnership had been critical of Dayton's reluctance in the past to fund broadband. But the group's executive director, Dan Dorman, praised the DFL governor for voicing support for broadband funding and said they will go a long way in helping his organization's efforts to convince the Senate to fund the program. Dorman said he believes access to high-speed internet to rural areas is critical for the state's future.

"If we advanced out 10 years and look at the lay of the land, the areas that don't have adequate broadband are going to be left behind," he said.

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, has lead the charge for broadband funding in the Senate this year. He said he remains optimistic the Senate will get on board.

"I don't think there is a better area, maybe outside of education, to be investing these one-time surplus dollars," he said.

Petition for silica-sand mining ban

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Silica sand mining opponents will travel to the Capitol on Earth Day to deliver a petition with 5,000 signatures to the governor, asking him to enact a two-year moratorium on frac-sand mining in southeastern Minnesota. The effort has been headed up by the Land Stewardship Project.

The group plans to bus citizens from southeastern Minnesota to St. Paul. Press conferences will be held on April 22 along the way in Winona, Red Wing and at the Capitol, where results of a statewide poll on silica sand mining will be released. Dayton has said he would be willing to ban silica-sand mining in southeastern Minnesota, but there is not political support for such an idea among the region's lawmakers. Last year, lawmakers approved a package of measures aimed at boosting regulation of mining. Dayton has said he is content to see how those new provisions work but, if problems arrive, he will push for a moratorium.

Benson not reconsidering retirement

Moments after announcing he was dropping out of the First District congressional race, Rochester Republican Mike Benson was swarmed by local activists asking him to reconsider his decision to retire from the Minnesota Legislature.

But Benson said in an interview Monday that he won't do that.

"If you are a person of principles, you stand by your word, and I said from the very beginning I was not going to and I was going to support the person that goes through the process and right now that seems to be Nels Pierson," he said.

Benson dropped out of the First District race after coming in a distant third on the second ballot during the First District Republicans endorsing convention on April 5. Byron Army veteran Aaron Miller went on to win the endorsement and will take on 1st District DFL Rep. Tim Walz in November.

House District 26B Republicans have not yet held their endorsing convention for Benson's legislative seat, adding to speculation among some that the Rochester Republican might decide to run for a third-term. But Benson made clear he's not going to change his mind.

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"I'm going to be true to my word," he said.

So far, Pierson is the only candidate seeking the Republican Party's endorsement. No Democrat has announced plans to run for the seat.

Benson noted that the end of his legislative career comes with a definite perk.

"My life just got a lot less complicated," he said.

Heather J. Carlson covers politics for the Post-Bulletin and writes the Political Party blog.

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