Lawmakers Consider Broadband Bill | News, Sports, Jobs

CHARLESTON — Hoping not to make the same mistakes as in the past when it comes to broadband expansion, lawmakers are considering a bill that will give them more control and say how the state spends its broadband dollars. broadband and economic development.

House Technology and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, is the lead sponsor of Bill 4001. His committee learned more about the bill Monday afternoon. HB 4001 would create the Legislative Oversight Commission on the Accountability of the Ministry of Economic Development.

The new commission would be made up of 14 members of the House of Delegates and state Senate from all committees dealing with infrastructure and economic development, along with Senate Speaker Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, non-voting. members.

The commission’s aim would be to oversee all financial investments made by the Ministry of Economic Development, the new state agency created last year from parts of the Commerce Ministry and headed by the former Senate president , Mitch Carmichael. The commission would create a line of communication between the Legislative Assembly and the department as it prepares to spend millions of dollars, mostly federal, on broadband expansion projects across the state.

“From a political point of view, we want to make sure that the policies we try to put in place are followed through and that we keep the dialogue open between the executive branch and the legislative branch throughout the year. on these initiatives. Linville said in an interview ahead of Monday’s meeting.

The Legislature already has joint oversight commissions for the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Resources, and the Department of Transportation – all agencies that have received millions of dollars from state taxpayers and federal funds.

With the Department of Economic Development already receiving millions of federal funds and state dollars for major manufacturing projects, Linville said it made sense to create a new oversight commission.

“First and foremost, we want to make sure the dollars we deploy are well spent,” said Linville. “The department was created last year and most other departments have a legislative oversight board to oversee, protect and balance the work they do. We proposed to create this, because there is certainly a very significant amount of money devoted to it.

The Legislature passed several bills during a two-day special session last week ahead of the start of the 60-day 2022 legislative session on Wednesday, including a new package of tax breaks for large manufacturing companies that need more than 200 workers.

Lawmakers transferred $315 million to the Department of Economic Development to use as matching funds for the proposed Nucor steel project in Mason County. These funds were taken from other state agencies, which will be reimbursed with federal COVID-19 funds from the U.S. bailout. The project would create up to 1,000 new construction jobs over two years, including 800 full-time jobs once the plant is complete, resulting in an investment of $2.7 billion.

An additional $15 million was transferred to the department from tax surpluses for a project between West Virginia University Health System (WVU Medicine) and Owens & Minor Inc. for a new drug compounding center. health. The project would create more than 125 jobs and represent an investment of approximately $50 million in the state.

West Virginia is set to receive $138 million for broadband expansion as part of President Joe Biden’s US bailout. The state can also use some of the $1.355 billion it receives under the US bailout for infrastructure projects, such as broadband expansion. And under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress in November, West Virginia will get at least $100 million in broadband coverage.

These federal investments do not include the more than $362.1 million awarded to nine Internet service providers in West Virginia for Phase I of the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, nor federal funding through the phases of the FCC’s Connect America Fund and the various grants and loans. through the Appalachian Regional Commission and the United States Department of Agriculture.

The Ministry of Economic Development and its National Broadband Office have launched a number of programs since last year to capitalize on all these funds to extend broadband to unserved and underserved areas, expanding last mile broadband, “dig once” policies and opportunities for installing fiber on state rights-of-way, accurate mapping of broadband services, and public-private partnerships with Internet service providers.

In addition to the creation of the supervisory commission, HB 4001 also creates a number of funds to invest dollars in various broadband programs, such as the expansion of middle mile broadband, the replacement and relocation of poles, the installation of ducts and mapping of rights-of-way.

“House Bill 4001 is our next effort to further expand broadband and improve the broadband people have today, as well as protect the consumer,” said Linville. “One of the things we do from a funding perspective is create the buckets that we can invest in… There may be unexpected costs and we want to make sure they’re accounted for.”

The bill also includes additional consumer protections and a requirement for telecommunications companies that offer Internet service to request “status of eligible telecommunications operators” with the Public Service Commission to show that the companies are in compliance with the FCC’s Universal Service Fund. The bill empowers the State Broadband Authority to check with the FCC to determine specific broadband commitments and obligations companies have made and compel companies to meet those obligations.

“The state has the option to be the one to issue this status to any supplier to the state of West Virginia,” said Linville. “In the past, we have relied heavily on the FCC to do this. This is another avenue we have to hold suppliers accountable in order to participate in these programs.

The bill empowers the PSC to fine any company that misrepresents its compliance once the hearing is held. Companies would also be ineligible for future state subsidies.

“The bill seeks to hold providers accountable so that if they fail to deliver on their promises, they will no longer be able to participate in these programs at both the state and federal levels,” said Linville. “If they lie to us after taking those grant dollars, it’s basically the vendor’s death sentence.”

HB 4001 will be taken up by the committee at a later date.

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