GOP bill cuts rural broadband grants

House Republicans have proposed a wide-ranging Energy and Economic Development Budget bill that touches on a host of issues from nuclear energy to rural Internet availability.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, says his bill directs more funding for workforce housing and makes energy in the state more affordable.

Critics say it rolls back significant renewable energy goals and cuts key rural economic development initiatives, including funding for rural communities to expand high speed Internet access known as broadband.

Garofalo said a hardwired system for rural broadband is too expensive. He said wireless and satellite Internet are better options.

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“The migration of technology is toward wireless and satellite deployments, and you can get far more coverage at a lower price by using wireless instead of fixed fiber,” Garofalo said. “We’ll see where the technology takes us, but it’s pretty clear that around the world even high density areas are using wireless because the infrastructure costs are so much cheaper.”

Garofalo’s comments on broadband were quickly criticized by Gov. Dayton’s administration and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, a group lobbying on behalf of rural interests.

“In its first year alone, this program has partnered with private providers and local governments to expand broadband access to thousands of households, 150 businesses, and 83 libraries, town halls, schools, and other community institutions in greater Minnesota,” Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said. “Access to high-speed, affordable broadband Internet is not just nice; it is necessary.”

Dayton and the DFL-controlled Legislature committed $20 million to rural broadband in the current budget cycle. A task force recommended $200 million to fund the initiative.

Garofalo says the crown jewel of his bill is his attempt to make clean energy more affordable. His initiatives include broadening solar energy, increasing incentives for people to buy electric and natural gas vehicles, and eliminating a ban on the construction of nuclear power plants in Minnesota.

Garofalo said the ban on new nuclear power plants will only force power companies to increase their reliance on other forms of power.

“If you don’t allow nuclear to replace that existing nuclear fleet, you’re going to end up with more pollution,” he said. “When people think about nuclear power, it’s zero carbon dioxide and zero emissions.”

Garofalo’s bill also touches on two controversial issues dealing with the minimum wage. It would allow restaurants to pay servers at a lower minimum wage rate if their combined tips and wages total $12 an hour.

The bill also prohibits local governments from requiring private employers to provide higher wages or better working conditions if it exceeds state or federal law.

Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, said he's puzzled why Republicans are scaling back programs that he says helped make Minnesota's unemployment rate one of the lowest in the nation.

"We have the best economy in the Upper Midwest except for North Dakota and they have oil," Mahoney said. "This takes the foot off of the gas. This says we're doing fine, we don't need to continue to push economic development, business will continue to do what business does."

The House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee will continue to hold hearings on the bill. It isn't certain when they'll vote on it.