(TNS) — Gov. John Hickenlooper is poised to sign a bill to allocate $115 million in the next five years to extend high-speed internet to rural Colorado, a significant step toward achieving his goal to connect the entire state.
The measure is a legacy piece for the term-limited governor and a major victory for state lawmakers who prioritized the needs of beleaguered rural communities as a way to bridge their deep divide with the state’s robust urban areas.
“People didn’t think we could get it done — I wasn’t sure we were going to get it done — but I think it’s something that down the road will make this state stronger and more resilient forever,” Hickenlooper said in an interview.
This legislative session, Hickenlooper made rural Colorado a top focus — a move his critics say is long overdue, but one the governor believes has been a constant throughout his two terms.
His annual State of the State address in January mentioned the word “rural” 28 times, according to the prepared text, as many as the previous seven years combined.
The Democrat said he wanted to make a point in his final address, and he acknowledged that not all parts of the state have rebounded from the economic downturn.
“Anytime you do something for the last time, you look back and see the places where maybe you weren’t convincing, or you didn’t get your point across,” he said.
“We feel like we have a lot to offer the state and we are excited about the focus on broadband, and a more renewed focus on economic development,” said Cathy Shull, the executive director of Pro 15, an organization that represents northeastern Colorado. “I think (Hickenlooper) has always had a very strong feeling and interest in rural Colorado. I just think there are so many things on the plate that it just became our year this year.”
Hickenlooper’s rural agenda
The governor’s address to lawmakers outlined a legislative agenda to boost rural Colorado that included $30 million for rural schools and $10 million to address teacher shortages in those areas — both of which made the budget bill finalized Friday.
Hickenlooper also suggested an extension of the tax credit for companies in economically distressed areas through the Rural Jump-Start program, which is working with 12 companies in 11 counties that anticipate creating 388 new jobs. But state lawmakers have not addressed the issue.
Elsewhere, his administration is promoting a five-year initiative known as Startup Colorado that began this year to assist startups in rural areas with networking and sponsorship as part of an effort to create a model for rural areas to lure entrepreneurs.
The disparities between rural and urban Colorado, Hickenlooper said, “is an enduring problem that many, many people before us have tried to address.
“I like to think we’ve done a better job than most. That’s why our state’s rural counties have recovered better, and I think more strongly, than other states,” he continued. “Is it enough? No. That’s why we made it such a focus of the State of the State speech to drive home the point.”
Economic numbers show positive signs
Contrary to the perception, economics suggest rural Colorado is doing better than rural America as a whole.
The Rural Mainstreet report in February, published by Creighton University in Omaha, showed that Colorado fares better than its peer states with positive growth, according to a survey of rural bankers.
Four in 10 rural Colorado counties ranked in the top quartile nationwide for employment growth from 2007 to 2016, and more than 70 percent landed in the top half of counties, according to federal Bureau of Economic Analysis data.
“Relative to the market, Colorado counties have outperformed” other rural counties, said Brian Lewandowski, the associate director for the business research division at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business.
But he added, the positive numbers still lag behind where Colorado’s rural counties once stood in terms of employment. “What we do see is a lot of these counties still have not recovered from their recession,” he said.
This is the point that Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, continues to make. In addition to broadband service, he wants to see more money for road expansions and other improvements in rural Colorado.
He applauded the governor’s focus this session — with a quip: “Finally, my yelling about how important all four corners of the state hit; it’s sticking,” he said.
But he remains cautious about whether the governor will deliver on his promises. “The message is there,” Sonnenberg said. “Are there teeth in what he’s saying? Is he actually going to follow through, or is it all talk?”
The broadband bill, Sonnenberg acknowledges, is a good start.
New money will build out broadband service
The measure — Senate Bill 2 — will take money collected from fees levied on phone lines and divert it toward building broadband service that operates at a minimum 10 megabits per second. In 2019, 60 percent of the money will go toward broadband, with that portion increasing in 2023 to 100 percent, or roughly $27 million a year, according to a legislative analysis.
The state is at 77 percent coverage, according the governor’s office, and the goal is to reach 85 percent by the end of the year.
Hickenlooper set a goal in his 2017 State of the State speech to reach 100 percent by 2020. And even though the bill is an acknowledgement that it won’t happen, the governor called it “a huge success.”
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