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Broadband funds out, complaints come in

ST. PAUL — Many rural Minnesotans complain that lack of high-speed Internet hinders their ability to communicate, but when House Republicans left broadband assistance money out of their budget a high-speed response followed.

"We are astonished as to why the House would ignore one of the state's biggest economic development needs," said Willmar City Council member Audrey Nelsen, a member of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities' board. "The lack of high-quality broadband affects communities and regions all across the state. Eliminating state funding for the broadband program will have a grave effect on greater Minnesota."

Coalition President Heidi Omerza, an Ely City Council member, urged greater Minnesota residents to take action.

"We are calling on civic groups, community leaders and editorial boards to join with us in asking the House Republicans to reconsider their decision and restore funding for the broadband program this year," Omerza said. "We simply cannot allow our lawmakers to stifle economic growth in greater Minnesota by refusing to fund this critical need."

The League of Minnesota Cities on Friday urged its members to contact legislators to support broadband funding. The league told its members that broadband resources are "critical for cities' economic development and vitality."

The chairman of the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Committee did not appear to be allowing the rural firestorm to affect him.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said that wired broadband, which provides high-speed Internet connections, is too costly in sparsely populated areas. He said wireless and satellite technologies are more financially effective.

The chairman said he thinks negotiations with the Senate and governor will result in a compromise.

"Like every flight, there will be some turbulence, but I expect a smooth landing," Garofalo said.

Garofalo said businesses that could provide satellite and wireless service are not interested in state aid because of strings that could come with it.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith wasn't buying Garofalo's explanation.

"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," Democrat Smith said.

Legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton approved $20 million for broadband development in the current budget, about a 10th what advocates wanted. Democrats suggest spending more than that in the coming two-year budget.

Spending debates like over broadband likely will continue until near the Legislature's May 18 adjournment deadline.

Executive Director Dan Dorman of the Greater Minnesota Partnership said businesses need high-speed Internet to compete.

"High-speed Internet service is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity for job and business growth," said Dorman, a former Republican legislator.

Assistant House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said he worries about broadband funding's future because the current $20 million was spearheaded by the House, with less interest in the Senate. The same senators are on the job this year.

The current broadband program provided grants to 17 organizations to expand high-speed Internet.

At the same time that many in rural Minnesota were worrying about broadband, fears were easing about Dayton's proposal to require vegetative buffer strips around water.

The relief comes after Dayton's Thursday night State of the State speech in which he called for people interested in buffers to work on a water pollution solution together.

"No one person or industry is responsible for our state's deteriorating water quality," Dayton said, "but every one of us is responsible for improving it."

President Kevin Paap of the Minnesota Farm Bureau said the buffer issue would be best settled by "the ones with the boots on the ground."

Farmers say they cannot afford to lose cropland to buffer strips.

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