When it comes to broadband, Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, captured what has become a common refrain at the Legislature: "Broadband is essential infrastructure. It is to the 21st century what electricity was to the last century."
Mark Dayton campaigned for governor in 2010 on making broadband a fixture from border to border. And the last two years, lawmakers have devoted tens of millions to competitive grant programs designed to bring or boost service to places that lack high-speed connections.
Now, the three budget blueprints floating around the Capitol propose considerable spending for high-speed internet expansion in rural Minnesota. However, the Democratic governor, the DFL-led Senate and the GOP-majority House disagree over what form the broadband would take, who would get it and how soon.
About 90 percent of all Minnesota households have at least some access, even if only at modest speeds. In rural Minnesota, the availability drops to 80 percent, according to the latest look by a blue-ribbon task force. The panel estimates it would require at least one billion to $3 billion more to reach universal access.
Dayton wants to spend $100 million from the state's $900 million projected surplus on broadband. That in turn would unlock private investment that often follows state and federal tax dollars put toward running fiber cables or installing wireless towers that send signals to hotspots.
Dayton is the high bidder.
Senate Democrats said Wednesday that they hope to come up with $85 million. That's $50 million more than House Republicans are proposing. The final figure won't come until a broader budget deal is struck — if one is at all — sometime in May.
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said the Republican amount would barely make a dent. She readily acknowledges that even $100 million won't get broadband to all 244,000 households without it.
"We're trying to find a good balance, a balance between making real progress while also realizing that we can't solve this problem all at once," she said. "It's like taking a big bite out of an apple. You take a big bite, you make progress and we come back to it next year and hope to make more progress."
A significant infusion of federal money is also expected soon.
Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said even if the state money comes through, the ability to convert it quickly into faster internet service is a real concern.
"It takes time to ramp up. I don't know what phase we are in the ramp-up," Skoe said. "But my guess is if the federal government is putting 85 million in and the state is putting 85 million in, probably those projects will last more than one year."
House Republicans are taking a methodical approach. Their $35 million would be spread over a couple of years. School districts would be eligible for $7 million of that off the top.
The school portion would enable select districts to buy mobile hotspots that could be used in classrooms, that students could check out to bring home or that could be installed on buses for the long trips many kids in rural Minnesota face.
Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said districts in his area have been experimenting with bus-based WiFi. The former teacher and coach says the technology has come in handy when area hockey teams have made seven-hour treks to St. Paul for the state tournament and students have been able to keep up with classwork.
"The changes that have occurred in education since I retired five years ago are just incredible with all of the iPads and the digital learning and stuff that's going on," he said.
To fellow Republican Ron Kresha of Little Falls, too much of the debate so far has been over the dollar amount and not enough on the best ways to keep up with rapidly changing technology.
"We have a problem, let's get to a solution," Kresha said. "Let's not fight about how we get there. What we have here is the how we're going to get there and it's very creative and I think we're going to deliver great access to those toughest to reach areas."
But House Democrats are unimpressed. Paul Marquart of Dilworth said the Republican plan provides too little and would leave many businesses, farmers and households waiting too long for help.
"If this was telephone or electricity, people would be in an uproar," the representative said. "But this puts rural Minnesota in a huge economic disadvantage."
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