- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - House Republicans say funding Wi-Fi hotspots for students and leveraging federal grants for broadband Internet development are the best ways to reach underserved communities in Minnesota, but Democrats argue the plan doesn’t go far enough.

A group of Republican lawmakers on Wednesday outlined a $35 million proposal for faster Internet in the state, including $7 million for school Internet grants and $28 million for rural broadband expansion.

“This is critical: Minnesotans are going to see a historic amount of broadband infrastructure investment in this year,” said Rep. Ron Kresha, a Republican from Little Falls.

Also on Wednesday, Senate Democrats announced a target of $85 million for broadband. The caucus didn’t shed any light on how they propose that be spent. The proposals from both chambers are lower than Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed $100 million.

The Republican proposal would focus on helping students get better Internet access. Lawmakers said students can often connect at school or at the library, but many don’t have access at home.



Education finance chairwoman Rep. Jenifer Loon said school districts could apply for a pool of $5 million in grants. Districts could receive up to $100,000 for operating costs and equipment, like Wi-Fi hotspots that students could bring home. The other $2 million would go to building broadband capacity.

“The great equalizer for education for all of our children really is having access to high-speed internet and broadband,” Loon said.

House Democrats criticized the majority’s proposal, saying it’s not enough money to effectively help rural communities. They support Dayton’s $100 million proposal and say Republicans aren’t putting forth enough funding in the current two-year budget.

The proposal from House Republicans would increase broadband spending by $20 million for this biennium, with an additional $15 million to be spent in the budget for the 2018-2019 cycle. Lawmakers hope communities could pair state broadband funding with federal dollars from the Connect America Fund, which aims to help rural communities pay for the infrastructure needed to access high-speed Internet.

Rep. Tim Mahoney, a St. Paul Democrat, called the plan “just smoke and mirrors.”

“How about we actually put investments into greater Minnesota … and quit trying to baffle them with malarkey,” he said.

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Follow Kevin Burbach on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kevinburbach

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