‘Rural agenda’ without broadband is rural sham

PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

Yesterday the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and others jumped on a troubling aspect of the House GOP budget proposal. Speaker Kurt Daudt’s caucus proposes to essentially end the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program and eliminate the state Office of Broadband Development. This, even as universal broadband is now widely embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike as a way forward for rural areas looking to diversify their economies.

This last year has seen a small but encouraging spurt of state investment into rural broadband on the Iron Range, but it was just the starting bell, not the final buzzer on what needs to happen. It used to be that this issue was more pressing among young families and professionals, but when I attended a recent Balsam Township community meeting people of all ages wanted to know how to get broadband, including retirees who previous distrusted the idea. We hear the same in townships and small towns across the region.

From the CGMC press release:

“The House GOP’s decision to put $0 into broadband essentially kills the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program,” said Heidi Omerza, an Ely City Council member and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC). “The lack of high-speed broadband continues to be one of the most pressing issues for communities and businesses across the state. It is deeply concerning that the House GOP has chosen to eliminate the funding needed to expand this vital service.”

In 2014, the House GOP offers comfort to rural voters most motivated by social and cultural issues, those uncomfortable with the many societal shifts that have occurred in recent years. But they also promised economic relief for Greater Minnesota. This, coupled with low voter turnout, was why 10 rural districts cast out their DFL representatives in 2014, tilting the House to Republicans. But in terms of actual policy, the new House majority is heavy on words, little on action for rural Minnesota. Sure, they offer some generosity in their transportation bill, but at the expense of state programs and higher education funding that specifically benefit rural areas. Now, House Republicans are stepping backwards on one of the most important rural economic issues of our time.

I understand that Republicans don’t trust government. That does not excuse action to eliminate efforts to expand broadband without new ideas to replace them. I wrote earlier today about the perils awaiting places like the Iron Range without broadband and economic diversification. The same is true throughout rural Minnesota. As was true 100 years ago, we need leadership and respect, not promises and exploitation.


  1. I’m a big fan of Mixergy podcasts. The host of the show has done over 1,300 interviews with entrepreneurs who’ve created successful businesses from scratch.


    A huge portion of the entrepreneurs profiled created businesses that could be created from anywhere. And, often without any formal education. However, nearly all of them would be impossible to start without access to broadband internet and the access that provides to free online courses, code repositories, online forums, and other critical resources entrepreneurs need to work efficiently.

    In fact, a lot of trained help desk people on the Range could likely supplement their incomes with gigs from sites like Elance, Odesk, or Fiverr. However, it would be nearly impossible to work for someone virtually without access to broadband.

    Broadband is a “help people help themselves” technology.

  2. In terms of negative impact on Greater Minnesota in general and the Range in particular, another important program targeted for destruction by the House majority is Minnesota Care.

    Not to be confused with the Obamacare program MNsure, MNCare is a decades old program to provide health care coverage for low income working people. Under the existing MNsure model, it covers those who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but who cannot afford market rate insurance. It targets people who make from about $20,000 per household up to about $55,000 per household. The two big groups covered are single parent families and Greater Minnesota households – in the one case because the absence of a second earner lowers household income, and in the other case because the prevalence of lower wage jobs in Greater Minnesota puts households in the qualifying range.

    In St. Louis County, there are 3300 individuals and families covered by MNCare, but there are probably at least 25,000 people who would qualify if they knew about the program. Enrollment numbers have increased because of use of the MNsure exchange, and may increase again because of the onset of the tax penalties for being uninsured.

    The increase in enrollment and the outlawing of insurance caps has exceeded the resources of the original funding – a tax on health care providers and organizations. General fund money has been used to bridge the gap. The funding of the program is up for renewal in 2018.

    The House majority has suggested MNCare be abolished and its enrollees moved onto private insurance through the exchange. That would be a good idea if money were no object, but MNCare costs way less than similar private insurance would cost because it pays providers and hospitals the same rates as Medicaid, much lower than private payment rates, and also saves considerable overhead by greater efficiency in both rate setting and claims processing. Despite the lower payment rates, health care groups in Northeastern Minnesota have strongly supported the program and are lobbying aggressively to stop it being abolished, simply because they are aware that substantial numbers of people would go uninsured without MNCare, and their health care would not be paid for at all, leading to budget problems and the necessity of increased rates to private payers.

    Minnesota enjoys the highest rated health care in the United States, and MNCare, founded in 1992 with bipartisan support, is an important part of the reason. If it is destroyed, many people in this area will go without health coverage, and health care organizations will be forced to cut back, bringing lay offs and poorer service. The same is true throughout large parts of Greater Minnesota.

    This is one more example of the “bait and switch” campaign that the House majority is following in Greater Minnesota.

  3. Bilbo Baggins says

    If you choose to live in an un/underdevelopeed area – go for it. If you choose to do so and expect someone else to provide for you, you’re in for a rude awakening 🙁

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