Star Tribune, April 15
Broadband grants are an odd target for GOP cuts
A grateful state House GOP majority was expected to exhibit special concern for Greater Minnesota this year. Ten of the 11 seats the Republicans wrested from the 2013-14 DFL majority in last fall's election sit outside the metro area.
That backdrop makes the new House majority's refusal to continue a year-old broadband Internet development program a curious show of parsimony. That program dispensed matching grants to both public and private Internet providers whose projects would bring broadband to unserved or underserved portions of the state — all of which are outside the metro area. Broadband expansion is a top priority for Greater Minnesota advocates this session.
Those advocates considered last year's $20 million allotment meager. It generated 44 applications and $19.4 million in grants to 17 projects. Gov. Mark Dayton's budget for 2016-17 would give the program a $30 million infusion. Rural advocates expected House Republicans to see that bid and raise it.
Instead, the House economic development funding bill would kill the grant program and eliminate the state Office of Broadband Development. That move is grounded in concern about changing technology, not free-market philosophy, GOP committee chair Pat Garofalo explained. Broadband technology is rapidly shifting from fiber-based to wireless delivery mechanisms that will lead to better coverage at lower cost. State grants for one kind of technology may slow the arrival of another, Garofalo said. "The private sector won't invest if it senses that the government is coming in with something else," he said.
He's right about the rapid pace of change in telecommunications. But his message to the parts of Greater Minnesota that are waiting for broadband seems to be "wait a little longer and trust the market to deliver."
That message can't be well-received in the 24 counties where, as of late last year, fewer than 50 percent of households had access to the Internet at speeds greater than 10 to 20 megabits per second download/5 to 10 megabits per second upload. They've been waiting for more than a decade for the market to deliver.
In those places, Minnesotans' ability to obtain medical care via telemedicine, manage farm marketing, take a college class online, start a business that serves distant clients, and generally engage in 21st-century commerce and culture is compromised every day by inadequate Internet service.
The grant program that the House bill would end is not specific to any particular technology. It's available to any project that can offer reliable, affordable service at high speed. Those criteria favored fiber-based projects in the initial grantmaking round, but wireless projects are welcome to compete.
Legislators should review those criteria to assure that the grant program is innovation's ally, not impediment. But they should not walk away from efforts to secure broadband's benefits for every Minnesotan. The Office of Broadband Development should survive and continue to help pay for projects that would stretch broadband's reach. Greater Minnesota residents who crave better Internet service should make their voices heard in St. Paul now.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, April 14
Gov. Dayton has a point about surpluses
Gov. Mark Dayton has a point when he says that, in future years, we're unlikely to see Minnesota state budget surpluses like the nearly $2 billion projected for the upcoming two-year budget period.
Surpluses are unlikely, the governor said in his State of the State address last week, given the slower pace of the national economic recovery and its vulnerability to unforeseeable world events, along with demographic changes that are likely to constrain our choices about where to spend money the state raises from taxpayers.
"Whatever future national economic growth does occur, will likely be less than that experienced in the post-World War II decades, before the Great Recession," he said.
All the more reason, then, for lawmakers to restrain themselves from spending the surplus in ways that produce ongoing, and compounding, obligations. Or, it can well be argued, from spending it at all.
The extra money projected on the bottom line results from Minnesotans' economic success, the governor contends.
He credited Minnesotans, recognizing "the business owners and executives, who have chosen to locate and expand here, because they found it profitable to do so"; "their hard-working, productive employees, who helped make those decisions successful"; and teachers, professors and other educators, as well as doctors, nurses, state and local government workers and more.
Unfortunately, Dayton said, the state's successes are seldom acknowledged inside the Capitol.
"Its inhabitants are too preoccupied with assigning blame for real and imagined shortcomings. So, I want to take this opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of the people of Minnesota. And to say, 'Thank You.' You are remarkable citizens. You have achieved extraordinary successes, which have boosted our state to its place today."
The governor cited growth in employment, incomes and business profits.
But we know it won't always be so.
As we maintain on these pages, more state spending today increases the chances for deficits when the economy inevitably cycles downward, and leaves less flexibility for response.
As we've noted, every dollar not added to the spending base today is a dollar-plus-inflation that doesn't have to be spent tomorrow.
And tomorrow will be far different, with demographic changes as aging baby boomers place increasing strain on government resources.
The governor's proposals, however, call for spending nearly all of the projected surplus this year. Included, as the Pioneer Press has reported, are hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending for education and families. In addition, Dayton last week advanced a plan calling for $842 million in state bonding — that is, borrowing, debt that must be repaid with interest — for public works projects.
During the remaining five weeks of this legislative session, Dayton told lawmakers, "We will face our own moments of truth: Will we do what is easy, safe and popular; or will we risk our political lives to preserve this great state for future generations?"
As they consider his question, lawmakers should make restraint central to the answer.
Thrift is a virtue.
If Minnesota's success owes to all those people the governor complimented, then he and the Legislature should take care to leave them as much of their own money as possible -- so they can do more of what makes Minnesota great.
The Free Press of Mankato, April 13
Ag can't deny water pollution
Gov. Mark Dayton's call for buffer strips along all streams, rivers, drainage ditches and other waterways may or may not become law this year, but it has helped focus the public's attention on the terribly deteriorated state of our water resources and agriculture's role in it.
There can be honest debate over the scope of any buffer strip requirements, but there is no debate about the human impact on water quality, particularly intense farming in southern Minnesota. The scientific evidence of nutrient and chemical pollution is broad and deep.
And while the buffer strip initiative aims at one part of the problem — nutrients leaching into waterways via surface runoff — it is only part of the discussion. Of equal, if not greater importance, is the direct role farm drainage has on increasing the water flow in rivers and streams — flow increases that rip away river banks and carry mud and more pollutants down river.
Many farmers and ag groups have clung to the argument that farm drainage has little if any impact and that greater precipitation is to blame for the high, fast-flowing rivers. Some have bought ads in this newspaper stating "tile drainage does not increase annual water flow" and the laughable argument that "farming practices are much the same in Southern Minnesota" as they were decades ago.
As their evidence they point to a relatively old, single study, funded by farm groups that points to more precipitation as the cause. That study is widely dismissed as incomplete and shallow in its scientific foundation by other scientists who have been for decades collecting data and conducting highly technical research on the problems. Their conclusion is clear: While an increase in precipitation has contributed some, the No. 1 cause of rising rivers and erosion is the massive increase in highly effective farm drainage in recent years.
A recent report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency highlighting a mountain of studies done on the Le Sueur River watershed — the most polluting of all in southern Minnesota — lists the No. 1 problem as artificial drainage, saying it "is driving many of the problems in the watershed."
Cities and industries used to casually pipe pollutants and poorly treated sewer plant water into rivers until science proved the dangers of it. The residents of those cities and taxpayers paid and continue to pay for expensive upgrades and changes that vastly improve — albeit haven't eliminated — much of the pollution.
No one should view farmers as evil because some of the modern farm practices unknowingly cause significant problems with the public's waterways. But that doesn't mean agribusiness can ignore the mountain of solid scientific knowledge available and began to help provide solid, meaningful solutions to the problems of farm drainage and nutrient and chemical pollution.