Tough year for expensive broadband fixes, says key lawmaker

A legislator key to the broadband issue in Minnesota said he’s open to discussing bigger ideas than Gov. Mark Dayton proposed this month but isn’t sure there’s much appetite for it among lawmakers.

Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, chairman of the House Labor, Workplace and Regulated Industries Committee, appeared before the governor’s broadband task force this morning to talk about how much of what the task force says is needed will actually get anywhere.

Johnson said he was ready to propose legislation creating a broadband development staff position within the Commerce Department, paying to develop a database of fiber projects and instigating a dig-once policy to simplify infrastructure developments. These are included in Dayton’s budget proposal and have a total two-year price tag of $500,000.

Not included in that proposal were task force recommendations to provide a tax credit or grant to Internet providers as an incentive to increase broadband access and sales tax exemptions for some telecommunications equipment directly related to fiber installation. The task force didn’t estimate the cost of the credit but did say the sales tax exemption would cost about $10 million over two years.

“Things that cost a lot of money are less likely to move forward,” Johnson said.

But when task force chairwoman Margaret Anderson Kelliher suggested that it might be worthwhile to get the more expensive ideas on the table at least to get some discussion going, Johnson agreed.

“I’m open to suggestions and willing to introduce things in that fashion,” Johnson said. He said he considered the more expensive proposals “excellent” but wondered, “Realistically, is there appetite? I’m not sure.”

The task force, which has been studying broadband in Minnesota more than a year, has said strongly that the state will not meet its goal of ubiquitous high-speed Internet availability by 2015 if it does not take some additional strategic steps.

Some have criticized the task force for not being aggressive enough in the recommendations it gave Dayton last month. But Johnson’s remarks make it seem that even some of the steps it wants to take may have tough sledding.

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