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MN House adds broadband, economic disparity money to budget

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The Minnesota House backed a supplemental budget bill Wednesday that includes new spending to expand rural broadband, promote tourism and tackle racial economic disparities. It would also cut state subsidies for the movie industry.

The measure adds $12 million in new spending in the agriculture, environment and job development areas of the budget. It passed the Republican-led House 72-54. House Democrats, however, criticized the GOP bill as another missed opportunity to make key investments with the state's $900 million budget surplus. House Republicans want to use that surplus for transportation projects and tax cuts. 

The bill includes $6 million for proposals aimed at reducing racial economic disparities. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, however, is seeking $100 million for similar efforts and Senate Democrats want $91 million.

"When we have a $900 million budget surplus, it is really unacceptable for us to not do more to address the economic disparities in or state. If not now, then when?" Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said during floor debate.

Democrats also took aim at the bill's broadband investment of $15 million in 2017. That's also just a fraction of what the governor and Senate are seeking.

The money is "woefully inadequate" and will put rural Minnesota further behind in economic development, said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth. "That really threatens rural Minnesota losing our young generation, our next generation of young leaders, out to the metro area."

House Republicans countered that their plan also comes with a pledge to make another $25 million broadband investment in 2018. 

The money will help the state leverage additional federal money and private sector matches, said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.

"We've actually got so much investment coming that we may have a shortage of workers in terms of fiber optic cabling, trenching, installing this infrastructure," he said. "That's going to be a bigger concern. It's not that there's going to be a lack of money being spent on it."

With less than four weeks left in the session, Dayton described the latest House supplemental budget bill as a waste of time and said Republicans appear to be more interested in election-year politics than making needed investments.

"If that's their position, then I don't know why we need to spend taxpayer money for the next three and a half weeks. Why don't we just pack it up and go home," he said. 

The House bill provides grants to struggling businesses in the Mille Lacs Lake area, as well as additional tourism promotion there.

It includes a requirement for carbon monoxide detectors on new boats, a repeal of the 2014 law on child care unionization, money to complete the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System project in southwestern Minnesota and money for anticipated lawsuits related to the PolyMet mining project.

It includes cuts to the Minnesota Investment Fund and the Job Creation Fund. It also eliminates money for the Minnesota Film Board and "Snowbate" incentive used to lure moviemakers to the state.

Garofalo said those government subsidies and perks have primarily benefited the Twin Cities metro area.

"Seventy percent of those jobs are being created in the 11-county metro area. The metro area has a red hot economy right now. We think a better strategy is again to get investment in infrastructure, primary in Greater Minnesota, and then to have a more favorable business climate for all the businesses in Minnesota," he said. "That's the better way to grow jobs, as opposed to trying to pick winners and losers."