REGIONAL- Everything from the Ely mayoral race to legalized recreational use of cannabis was among the issues that Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, addressed Tuesday in a livestream …
REGIONAL- Everything from the Ely mayoral race to legalized recreational use of cannabis was among the issues that Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, addressed Tuesday in a livestream legislative update.
The District 3A legislator wasted little time with opening remarks, instead diving headlong into a far-ranging set of questions about district, state, and national issues posed by viewers on Facebook Live, as well as some submitted prior to the broadcast.
One recurring theme was the status of broadband Internet service and expansion, an issue Ecklund has thoroughly embraced.
“That’s been one of the key things I’ve been working on since I’ve been in the Legislature,” Ecklund said. “Right now, I’ve got a bill for $120 million sitting in Ways and Means (committee) to fund the rural Border-to-Border grant program.”
The bill would allocate $60 million in each of the next two years to fund broadband expansion across the state.
Ecklund addressed the conflict created between state and federal funding options that has diced up townships and other areas of the district into smaller segments that can only be funded by one source or the other, but not both. Nevada-based LTD Broadband, a company with limited broadband experience, won a $312 million federal award under the Trump administration to develop systems for tracts throughout Minnesota. That decision has already had repercussions for Cook, where Paul Bunyan Communication’s original plan for the city had to be scaled back because its state-supported initiative overlapped places awarded to LTD Broadband by the federal government.
“One supplier got the majority of the contract,” Ecklund said, referring to LTD Broadband, “and it’s being looked at. The sad thing about it is that it’s a lot of money, but it’s spread out over a decade. To have big chunks of the state cut out of any other development just because it’s in that funding is terribly unfortunate. We’ve asked for some federal help on this to see if this is what they intended. We have not gotten an answer back.”
Ecklund acknowledged that some areas of the district have good broadband service, while there are other places “where it’s virtually impossible to get a signal.”
“District 3A has got the best of both worlds and the worst of both worlds when it comes to broadband,” Ecklund said.
The financing conundrum stands to hit rural townships particularly hard, given that lower numbers of potential users and installation issues make fiber optic broadband systems more costly. Ecklund said he is encouraging counties to use some of the federal relief money coming in to help.
“If they can afford to, (they can) set up a broadband account so that when Township XYZ puts in a proposal with one of the carriers and they have to come up with some money, maybe the county could also help,” Ecklund said. “When there’s more local skin in the game it looks better on the application.”
Ecklund also said that “broadband deserts” aren’t unique to rural areas, as there are numerous service gaps in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.
“It is a problem throughout the state and this pandemic has just exacerbated that,” he said.
Ecklund also addressed other bills that he has authored or co-sponsored this session. That includes a measure to provide relief to loggers who purchased timber permits last year with the expectation they would sell spruce and balsam to the Verso mill in Duluth, which shut down last June. Ecklund’s bill would provide full or partial refunds of the permit down payments. Another Ecklund initiative is a bill to address the increasing rate of chronic wasting disease in the state’s deer population, and another to develop a master plan for the state’s ATV trail system.
The Ely mayoral race came up when Ecklund responded to a question about rank order voting, a ballot system that has voters rank their preferences for all candidates running for a position rather than cast a single vote for one of them. Such a system can circumvent the need for primary elections and runoffs.
Saying he’s a recent convert to the idea of using rank order voting in municipal elections, Ecklund used Ely as an example.
“If you take a look at what’s going on in Ely right now, there’s six people running for mayor,” he said. “The guy that won didn’t want to be mayor and he tried to withdraw and didn’t withdraw soon enough, so that race was thrown out in November. They had to have another one, and six people filed. Ely will be without an elected mayor until sometime around, I think, June or July before they’ll have the final election. If Ely had the option for rank choice voting, that could certainly save Ely a significant amount of money.”
A sampling of other items Ecklund addressed included:
He said that he didn’t know if any significant voter-related legislation would come out of this legislative session, given the differences in majority party control of the Senate and House.
Noting that it wasn’t the business owners in Minneapolis and St. Paul who damaged their properties in last summer’s civil unrests, Ecklund expressed support for state funding to help those businesses and areas recover, saying, “The seven-county metro sends far more tax dollars to northeastern Minnesota than we send down there. We’re Minnesota. I feel we need to take care of rebuilding the downtown.”
Eklund said it was unlikely any action would be taken on legalizing adult cannabis use because there is no movement in the Senate to act, but that he has voted three times in favor of legalization.
Ecklund has included $6 million to address veterans homelessness and $1.5 million for veterans suicide prevention in a military omnibus bill.
A measure that Ecklund supported that would set a uniform four-walleye limit for all state lakes may not see any action this session. “The chair didn’t give it a hearing,” he said. “I don’t know why it didn’t get a hearing in the House.”
Responding to a question about what he could do for the PolyMet and Twin Metals mining projects “to help move them along,” Ecklund said, “There is none of that right now that is under the purview of the Legislature except for monitoring, like everybody else is doing.”
He expressed overall support for moving forward with clean energy ideas but indicated concern that heavily coal-dependent rural electric associations may need additional time and support for conversions beyond the 2040 date proposed by one clean energy bill.
Ecklund reinforced support for the Second Amendment and the rights of gun owners and said that if anything were to be done about gun control, “It’s got to be way more thoughtful and not from the hip.”
The final question came from someone who wanted to know what could be done to restore civility in politics.
“I think maybe it should be how do we get more civility back in society,” Ecklund said. “If you take a look, politics is an offspring of what’s happening in our society. We ought to just start treating people with respect. That’s how I try to do my business down in St. Paul. You can’t get mad, you can’t get disgusted, because everybody’s got their own political views, their own personal views on how things should be done. The utmost thing is that we just have to start treating others with respect, and respecting others’ opinions even if we disagree. I think we’ve gotten away from that.”