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Minnesota Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake

Broadband and value-added agriculture among Minn. Legislature priorities

The Minnesota Legislature is off to another fast start in 2019. This session, I am honored to have been re-appointed chairman of the Minnesota Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Finance. I have served as chairman of the committee since early 2017.

As someone who grew up on a farm and lived in Greater Minnesota my entire life, I know how important a strong agricultural economy is for our state and local communities. Whether it's crops, livestock, food processing or other types of value-added agriculture, it is important that we keep our taxes low, find ways to streamline any regulations that hinder our farmers and agricultural manufacturers, and keep our farmers profitable through expanding markets. In our state, strong agriculture is strong Greater Minnesota development.

It is also important to note that agricultural policy is not limited to crops and livestock. Consistently, I hear from farm families in my community struggling to afford everything from health insurance to child care and struggling with mental health.

During the 2017-18 legislative session, the Minnesota Senate prioritized these issues through lowering health insurance rates on Minnesota's individual market by at least 25 percent, creating a child care access working group that has been meeting with stakeholders across our state to reduce unnecessary regulations on child care providers, and additional resources for our state's farmer mental health program. While the farmer mental health appropriation was vetoed by our previous Gov. Mark Dayton, the Minnesota Senate has renewed our commitment to addressing these issues as our first five bills unveiled this session target these policy areas.

New to the Agriculture Committee this session is oversight on rural broadband expansion. From health care to education, broadband access is essential to our way of life in the 21st century. I regularly hear from rural residents and small business owners that a lack of broadband limits their ability to flourish in Greater Minnesota, much like a lack of electricity did 75 years ago.

I have long been a proponent of rural broadband expansion, authoring multiple bills that funded projects to expand broadband access. In 2014, the Minnesota Legislature created the Border to Border Development Grant Program to provide state resources in building broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas of our state. Every year since, the Legislature has passed funding for this program. Unfortunately, the previous governor vetoed the Legislature's appropriation for this program in 2018. This session, I have joined a bipartisan group of senators authoring legislation to invest $70 million in broadband expansion over the next two years.

Broadband expansion benefits everyone, from students doing homework to businesses in Greater Minnesota. I look forward to growing our rural economy through policies that benefit Minnesota families. Through working across the aisle, we can improve our state, economy, and way of life.

Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake) has served in the Minnesota Legislature since 1996 and the Minnesota Senate since 2012. He is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Finance.