Maine's High-Speed Internet Expansion Bill Wins Support, But Falls Into Funding Limbo

The bill would provide some $6.25 million a year for the organization to help internet access companies expand their services and to bond for infrastructure improvements.

by Christopher Cousins, Bangor Daily News, Maine / June 16, 2017
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(TNS) -- AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill designed to expand high-speed internet access in rural Maine won strong support from the Legislature but is in danger of failure after being thrust into funding limbo.

The bill, LD 1399, passed in the House and Senate this week but on Thursday afternoon was moved by the Senate to what is known as the special appropriations table. That is where most bills that cost money go and often die when lawmakers don’t fund them. It will now compete with scores of other bills for a limited pool of state dollars.

Sponsored by Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, the bill would re-route telecommunications excise tax revenue, which currently flows to the ConnectME Authority, to a new entity in the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development called the Maine Broadband Initiative. That would provide some $6.25 million a year for the organization to help internet access companies expand their services and to bond for infrastructure improvements.

Gov. Paul LePage has proposed allocating that money to municipalities but the Maine Municipal Association’s Legislative Policy Committee supported using the money for the Maine Broadband Initiative.

While that part of the bill wouldn’t affect the state’s general fund, other aspects of the bill would. It calls for $66,000 next year, $139,000 the year after and ongoing costs to hire a director for the Maine Broadband Initiative.

“In the current budget situation, the odds are long,” Bellows said Thursday. “However, I was encouraged by the very strong bipartisan support for the proposal in both chambers.”

The bill passed 104-38 in the House on an enactment vote and unanimously in the Senate.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, a co-sponsor of the bill, said some Republicans tried to erode support for it following a stronger 116-29 vote earlier this week. It is unusual for a bill to have two roll-call votes, particularly at the end of session when legislation is bottlenecked.

Dozens of Maine businesses and nonprofit organizations endorsed the bill during a committee hearing earlier this year.

“If we want to keep our young people in Maine, this is just the bill to do it,” said Berry during House debate on Thursday.

Bellows said despite the importance of the project, the state should not launch it without secure, ongoing funding in place.

“I don’t think we should go down this road unless we truly and adequately fund the entity,” said Bellows. “I’m pragmatic and I understand that we’re in a particularly difficult budget dialogue right now.”

A panel of six legislators — three Democrats and three Republicans — continue to try to fashion a compromise on an evolving $6.8 billion two-year proposed budget that must win two-thirds support from the House and the Senate before July 1 to stave off a government shutdown. Until that spending plan wins approval, funding for bills like Bellows’ that pass with broad support remains in jeopardy.

More than 100 enacted bills now await funding decisions by the Appropriations Committee. Given the stalemate around the biennial budget and debate around increased public education funding, it’s likely that only a few of those bills will be funded.

Berry said that if the broadband bill isn’t supported by the General Fund it could still become part of a bond package in the current legislative session.

©2017 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.