Broadband policy was a central focus of debate Wednesday as the House passed the omnibus agriculture, environment and natural resources and job growth and energy affordability bill.
The second of three supplemental omnibus bills in the House, HF3931 was passed 72-54. Sponsored by Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), it now goes to the Senate, whose members have rolled several omnibus bills into one supplemental omnibus bill.
The bill also received much debate over spending priorities, including concerns over plans to shift avian flu funds.
“The only way the bill will come along is if we work together. No one wants to be a jerk; we want to cut a deal, and get this done,” Garofalo said.
“It’s clear you don’t care. There’s nothing of substance in this bill,” said Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul).
Broadband budget battle
The heavily-discussed Border-to-Border Broadband program originally showed up in the omnibus job growth bill with a $15 million appropriation in Fiscal Year 2017 and $25 million in Fiscal Year 2018.
As one-time appropriations, funds would work to further provide high-speed Internet access Greater Minnesota by furthering availability, testing accuracy and deploying development. Of the amounts appropriated, $1 million would go to expand grants to unserved areas and $500,000 would go to expand availability in low-income households.
The proposal would require the program reach underserved areas whose households or businesses lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds greater than 10-20 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload, as well as unserved areas at speeds greater than or equal to 10 megabits per second download, and three megabits per second upload.
As of February 2015, it was estimated that over 244,000 households, almost all of which are in Greater Minnesota, do not have access to broadband.
“This is a great step forward, and a historic moment for broadband in Greater Minnesota,” Rep. Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls) said.
However, some believe it is not nearly enough.
An amendment that would have changed both funding and speed requirements drastically was ruled out of order because it would increase appropriations without going through the proper fiduciary channels of the House Ways and Means Committee.
In the amendment, funding would have gone from the proposed $15 million in Fiscal Year 2017 to $85 million, and from $25 million to $50 million in Fiscal Year 2018.
Speeds in underserved areas would go from 10-20 megabits per second download to “at least 100,” while upload speed would go from three to “at least 20.” Unserved areas download speed would go from 10 megabits per second to 25, while upload requirements would remain the same.
“[This amendment] is an attempt to do right by Greater Minnesota; it is designed to bring in all the provisions of the Senate bill. The House version of the broadband proposal is nothing more than what the cable companies want,” said Rep. Erik Simonson (DFL-Duluth), who sponsored the amendment.
“Communities are begging for better broadband, and we’ve done virtually nothing,” Simonson said, alluding to the $900 million budget surplus available.
The amendment would have also deleted the provision to allow the incumbent provider the right to first refusal, as well as the provision that would allow a commissioner to determine the creation, or retention of, jobs in underserved areas located in counties that are not in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
Gov. Mark Dayton has requested $100 million in his supplemental budget to expand broadband funding. The Senate has proposed $85 million in funding for Fiscal Year 2017.
Contentious bill language would also allow any incumbent Internet provider the right to first refusal when offering service within the geographic location of any project proposal. Language to delete the provision was part of Simonson’s unsuccessful amendment.
Sponsored by Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake), the omnibus agriculture finance bill provisions of the bill aim to prepare for the impact of emerging diseases in agriculture, including avian flu, while remaining within the targeted $2 million reduction of total agriculture appropriations.
More than $9.8 million in existing avian flu funding would be used for other purposes. Of that amount, the bill calls for $7.8 million in new, onetime spending on laboratory equipment, including for both the Department of Agriculture and the Board of Animal Health, and other improvements targeted at helping the state’s ability to respond to agriculture emergencies, especially disease outbreaks like avian flu.
The bill would also broaden some 2015 appropriations — including $20 million from the Department of Public Safety Disaster Assistance Contingency funds — to address emergency responses to agricultural issues.
Rep. David Bly (DFL-Northfield) doesn’t object to broadening the state approach to all agricultural emergencies, but emphasized deep concerns about shifting avian flu funding to achieve it. He said he worried it would leave the state vulnerable to another major incident and that the emergency funds wouldn’t be as easy to access for avian flu response as advertised.
A onetime $250,000 appropriation would establish the tractor rollover protection pilot program, which seeks to reduce serious accidents by funding up to 70 percent of install roll bars on tractors.
A few language-only changes are in the bill, including adding certain private well contaminant removal projects to some grant programs and adding biobutanol to biofuel incentive programs.
The Legislature previously appropriated $75,000 for Fiscal Year 2016 to study whether a processing facility at Northeast Regional Corrections Center, a Saginaw correctional working farm, could be converted into a USDA-certified food processing facility. Prisoners learn meat processing skills at the facility, providing them training for after their release.
The bill was successfully amended to broaden the $75,000 appropriated for Fiscal Year 2017 to obtain a coordinator for a pilot program to assist entities exploring the feasibility of establishing a USDA-certified facility within 30 miles of the center.
Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance
Articles 2 and 3 contain the environmental and natural resources finance and policy provisions of the bill, which would appropriate $8.65 million during fiscal years 2016 and 2017 for the state’s parks, trails and forestry work, as well as potential legal costs related to the PolyMet mining project.
HF3931 includes environment and natural resources provisions that would:
“I know we don’t have [complete] agreement, but most folks will agree it’s a really good bill,” McNamara said.
However, Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) disagreed, saying the bill didn’t contain any provisions for pollution control and was focused on the wrong priorities.
“This is a bad bill,” Hansen said.
It would lower the state’s liability from $1 million to $500,000 for workers acting on its behalf. This concerned a number of members, who opposed the amendment, but it was adopted on a voice vote.
“We’re just trying to make it simpler so Minnesotans can do something they do very well, which is volunteer and help out,” Fabian said.
Lake Minnetonka project
The bill would also create a pilot project on Lake Minnetonka to allow licensed lake service providers to take boats from the water to facilities not located directly adjacent to the lake and bring them back again without the boat first having to be decontaminated.
Because of concerns over aquatic invasive species, service providers without on-the-water facilities are currently subject to more stringent requirements than companies with waterside locations when taking equipment in and out of lakes. The pilot study seeks to level that playing field by establishing a chain of custody so boats can be controlled and tracked when not in the water, removing the need for them to be decontaminated.
“They don’t need to decontaminate and spend a lot of expensive time when they know the boat is going to come back into the same lake,” McNamara said.
The project includes a report back to the Legislature on its effectiveness, and the program could be expanded to other parts of the state if successful.
Session Daily writers Nick Longworth, Jonathan Mohr and Josh Moniz contributed to this story