Moolenaar discusses current issues with constituents

Broadband expansion in rural areas a top funding priority

Representative John Moolenaar stopped by the Herald Review offices last week to discuss issues important to the local community. Currently representing MI-4, he is running for election to MI-2 in 2022, due to redistricting.

Representative John Moolenaar stopped by the Herald Review offices last week to discuss issues important to the local community. Currently representing MI-4, he is running for election to MI-2 in 2022, due to redistricting.

Pioneer photo/Olivia Fellows

BIG RAPIDS — U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar has been visiting with constituents to discuss important issues that impact residents of West Central Michigan.

Currently representing the 4th Congressional District in Michigan, Moolenaar is running for election in 2022 to represent the newly drawn 2nd Congressional District, which includes Mecosta, Osceola and Lake counties. Also running in MI-2, along with Moolenaar, are Jericho Gonzales (R), Tom Norton (R), and Ray Johnson (D). U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R), who has represented the old MI-2 district since his election in 2010, will now be running in the MI-4 district.

Moolenaar recently spoke with reporters for the Lake County Star to talk about issues important to the local communities.

THE BOOST ACT

One important issue throughout Lake County, as well as most rural areas in Michigan, is limited internet access, which Moolenaar said is a priority for him.

“We have all been dealing with COVID-19 the last couple of years and, if anything, it has shown us the importance of internet access, from students learning online to people accessing medical telehealth and people working remotely,” he said. “Agriculture benefits a lot from access to the internet, and so do small businesses. If you can access the internet, it really adds a lot to your quality of life. If you cannot, then that can become very frustrating. So that has been a big priority for me.

“I had a chance to see how the electric cooperatives are building out fiber here in the area,” he said. “I am on the (House) Appropriations Committee, and we are providing more financial resources for building out fiber optic networks, but that takes time. While that is being built out, we wanted to have other options for people to access the internet, so I have sponsored the Boost Act, which will provide a tax credit that enables individuals to purchase internet boosters or hot spots.” 

The Boost Act will allow a one-time $300 tax credit to offset the cost of equipment to capture an internet signal, he said.

“The technology to capture the signal can be pretty costly, and with the Boost Act, we are trying to help the homeowners who are getting the message from the internet companies that it may take some time to get service to them,” Moolenaar said.

In addition to the funding provided in the previous Farm Bill, Moolenaar said they will be working on a new Farm Bill in the next legislative session that will hopefully be able to further support rural broadband expansion efforts and provide incentives for internet companies to expand.

“It takes resources, and it takes time,” Moolenaar said. “The companies putting in the fiber are experience a worker shortage and supply chain issues, as well. I realize if someone is telling you it may be five or ten years until they get fiber to your area, that is not very helpful, so we are trying to help incentivize different technologies and innovations as well.”

VACCINE MANDATES

Another important issue for Moolenaar is the vaccine mandates, which he considers an ineffective ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy.

“I just don’t think the federal government should be in the business of telling people what to do for their own health care,” Moolenaar said. “That should be up to the individual and their health care provider. I introduced legislation that would withhold funding from OSHA if they enforce a vaccine mandate. Fortunately, the Supreme Court agreed with that.”

When asked how he reconciled eliminating the vaccine mandate with the need for workers to feel like they have a safe work environment, he said his goal is to make the vaccine, along with treatment options and safety equipment (PPE) widely available.

“I think we need to focus more on the treatment side and having access to treatments, because, ultimately, these viruses are going to be with us in different mutations,” Moolenaar said. “I also think it is important to recognize that there is a natural immunity that occurs, and that is something the federal government has not been good about recognizing and understanding.

“I think where we are right now is that we need to find better medicines to treat the disease,” he continued. “We need to be researching the effectiveness of different treatments and make that information available to healthcare providers. These are the things we need to have a better understanding of, and we need to be updating our protocols based on that information.”

ROBEN-HOOD AIRPORT EXPANSION

A major project Moolenaar sees as important to the local communities is the Roben-Hood Airport runway expansion. In May, he met with Big Rapids city officials and airport representatives to discuss the project and pledged to do what he could to help get it funded.

“We were able to successfully put some funding in an appropriations bill that went through the House, unfortunately we are in a process where there has to be agreement with the Senate and the White House,” he said. “Right now, we are under a continuing resolution from the previous year’s appropriation rather than the appropriation that was recently passed in the House.”

He went on to explain that the House is looking at a policy that will allow members of Congress to specify certain community projects for funding, which will make it easier to get the funding where it is most needed.

“Because the House (previously) adopted a policy of “no earmarks,” members cannot specify funding for a particular pet project,” Moolenaar explained. “What we have decided to look at is a policy that will say if it is a nonprofit or a government institution, and if it is posted and disclosed and it is transparent, you can have community projects funded specifically in an appropriations bill. The House has adopted the policy, but the Senate has not yet.

“When it came down to the importance of this airport infrastructure, that is a perfect example of congressionally directed spending that would support a project where the benefits are widely dispersed,” he said. “The way it works now, the executive branch determines everything. Congress doesn’t have a role. This would be an example of Congress exerting its Constitutional role of the ‘power of the purse’ to direct spending. If, and when, it passes the Senate, my goal is to specify this project as something to support.”

He added that if the policy does not pass the Senate, the airport officials will have to apply for a grant, and it would be at the discretion of the executive branch whether or not to approve the grant.

“It is up to the FFA and the people that oversee airport funding as to how to set those grant criteria and what they are going to use the funding for, so that is why it makes sense to me for Congress to have some say,” he said. “You have a bureaucrat in Washington DC that doesn’t know anything about Big Rapids, so that is why I think Congress should have a stronger role in those decisions.”

FAILING DAMS

Moolenaar said that as they go through the appropriations process, they will be asking for recommendations from communities for projects they want funded, and they will look at those recommendations to get a better understanding of what the project is so that they can be an effective advocate for them.

“To me, infrastructure is right at the top, and an important area of that is the dams that failed," he said, referring to the Edenville and Sanford dams that failed in May 2020, flooding communities in Midland County.

He said the rebuilding of the dams would be difficult to sell as a federal project for funding, but stabilizing them so that there is not more erosion might be possible, and they are working with the USDA Rural Development program to advocate for additional funding to support that.

“Going forward, that is something we will be putting in requests for, to make sure further damage is not being done,” he said.

The USDA Rural Development grant program is a separate entity that is helping communities get funding for things like new fire trucks and equipment, as well as infrastructure funding for water and sewer.

USDA grants typically fund police and fire departments and there are specific criteria as to what the funds can be used for, but they also offer low-interest loans for infrastructure related projects and those loans can be very beneficial to smaller communities, he said.

“Where our office works with it is, we will have a community tell us they are interested in a grant from the USDA, and we will write a letter of support and advocate for that project,” Moolenaar said. “That is where we will do whatever we can to help a local community with its priorities. For rural communities, it is a huge shot in the arm, so when we take up the next Farm Bill, I want to make sure that the USDA Rural Development program is a strong priority.”

LINE 5 TUNNEL

Moolenaar said he supports the Line 5 tunnel construction and believes it is the safest way to transport the needed propane and other energy sources.

“The question is, ‘Is the tunnel safe?’ and I believe it will be,” Moolenaar said. “We have a responsibility to ensure that it is, and as it has been proposed, with all the safeguards, I think it is absolutely the best approach.

 “I love the Great Lakes and am a supporter of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative,” he continued, “but when you consider all the different ways to transport oil and gas, I believe these pipelines, especially with this tunnel, is by far the most cost effective, as well as the safest way to protect our natural resources. We need propane and other energy, and we want to make sure it is transported in a safe and effective way. My understanding is that this is innovative with the goal of making it as safe and efficient as possible.”

The Great Lakes Tunnel is a $500-million private investment by Enbridge in Michigan, which will be built deep under the Straits to house Line 5. 

While Line 5 has operated safely and reliably in the Straits for more than 65 years, the Great Lakes Tunnel will be bored through rock, as much as 100 feet below the lake bed — virtually eliminating the chance of a pipeline incident in the Straits, information on the Embridge website said.

Lined with thick, reinforced concrete, a tunnel would protect the aquatic environment—and reduce the likelihood of environmental impact to near zero. The tunnel would eliminate the possibility of an anchor strike, and it may also provide access for ongoing inspection and maintenance work.

Once this tunnel is complete, the existing dual pipelines at the Straits, which have operated safely since 1953, would permanently deactivate.