Lawmakers allocate US $ 31 million for broadband

The Arkansas Legislative Council and its co-chairs on Friday authorized the state’s Commerce Department to use up to $ 31 million in federal coronavirus relief funds from the US Rescue Plan for broadband subsidies.

The council’s action was taken after Gov. Asa Hutchinson initially refused a recommendation from a subcommittee on Tuesday to reduce the department’s request, which was originally $ 150 million. The governor decided at Friday’s meeting to reduce the request to $ 30 million.

The back-and-forth is the latest skirmish between the Republican governor’s administration and the Republican-dominated legislature over the use of state manna from federal coronavirus relief funds and funds from the Coronavirus Relief Plan. American rescue in the last year or so.

Friday’s question was how much spending power to give the Commerce Department for using US bailout funds for broadband subsidies, after questions from some lawmakers about the adequacy of broadband planning state and coordinating its efforts with others.

“I was happy that $ 31 million was funded, but there is a lot of work to be done,” Hutchinson said Friday in a written statement.

“Arkansas needs to be able to use the US bailout money quickly and efficiently to get broadband statewide,” he said.

Hutchinson said the Commerce Department’s initial request for $ 150 million should have been approved by the Legislative Council.

But board approval of up to $ 31 million means projects ready to go will no longer be delayed, Hutchinson said.

“I hope that additional projects will be funded in the near future so that broadband can be deployed to 150,000 Arkansains.”

“There isn’t a lawmaker here who doesn’t want to have broadband in their community and be able to serve their people, so that’s not really the issue,” said Senator Jane English, R- North Little Rock, at the council meeting. Meet.

“The only thing I know is there’s so much money out there, including that, and the towns and counties and the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce, so to one way or another, we should be able to find ways to coordinate these efforts. “

The Arkansas Rural Connect grant program has awarded $ 113.5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds and $ 4.5 million in state funds to 76 projects, according to the Commerce Department.

Ministry officials said they have about $ 30 million in broadband grant applications that meet federal guidelines, which focus on fiber rather than wireless. The department still has $ 115 million in claims that need to be adjusted to meet guidelines.

Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd R-El Dorado said, “I would like confirmation that this $ 30 million will be applied to the projects that are presented to us today, the 17 projects.”

Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said the department needed spending authority of $ 30.7 million to fully fund the 17 projects.

Shepherd said the other $ 115 million worth of projects included some that could be adjusted in days or weeks, and others that may never adjust and not move forward.

Preston said there are probably 15 or 20 broadband applications that are going to require minor adjustments and could be fixed in a day or two, so “we’re coming back. [seeking] $ 80 million “in spending authority and” a week later that was achieved. “

Senator Missy Irvin, of R-Mountain View, said: “I don’t think this is a bad time to hit the pause button.

Fixed wireless projects in the $ 115 million in requests are expected to be replaced with fiber optic projects, which could alter the ministry’s spending authority request, she said.

“I don’t want to pay for a dirt road where we need a freeway or pay for a freeway where we need a dirt road and… we want a lot more involvement and intentionality behind what we do, ”said Irvin, who asked at Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting whether the state needs a broadband consultant.

“This is just one part of a particular successful program that the legislature has worked closely with us to develop that program, approved its rules and used [federal coronavirus relief funds] for, ”Preston said.

“Now we make the adjustment to use [the American Rescue Plan funds], “he said.” We want to build this infrastructure for the long term.

“We have a lot of ready-to-go fiber projects that we can build and move forward,” Preston said. “We just don’t want people to have to wait any longer. They have been waiting long enough.

He said the Rural Connect grant program has provided broadband access to more than 130,000 Arkansans so far and the department’s request to use $ 150 million for more grants would provide broadband access. to 150,000 additional Arkansans.

English said lawmakers are keen to have a broader discussion about coordinating broadband efforts statewide.

“What does it look like in five years and how are we going to get there? “

Preston said, “This is part of the bigger talk about broadband. … This is what we have in front of us and this is what we focused on and we would like to be a part of this conversation.

When asked if the state should hire a consultant to develop a broadband plan, Hutchinson later said the state has a plan through the Legislature-approved Rural Connect program.

“In terms of a consultant, we have already used the work of a third-party consultant,” he said. “Hiring another contractual consultant can be helpful, but any new contract requires further scrutiny by the legislature. And every scrutiny and approval required from the legislature slows it down. To hire a consultant will once again require more reviews, debate and time.

The board ultimately approved a motion from Senator Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, authorizing his co-chairs, Senator Terry Rice, R-Waldron, and Representative Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, to sign a letter authorizing the Commerce Department. to use up to $ 31 million for grants. Rice and Wardlaw later said they approved the letter.

The Legislative Council also approved a statewide Rural Broadband Identification Grant of $ 18,630 to the Town of Little Rock and the Little Rock Port Authority.

These grants are available to help cities, incorporated towns and unincorporated communities conduct broadband business due diligence studies, said Joseph Sanford, director of the University’s Institute for Digital Health & Innovation. of Arkansas for medical sciences.

The studies are required in federal applications for grants and loans for broadband infrastructure. Communities can use their studies to apply for funding from the Federal Communications Commission, the US Department of Agriculture and other programs offering federal grants or loans for broadband development, he said.

But the council decided to delay action on the proposed grant of $ 74,426.46 for rural broadband identification in Phillips County, after Representative Lanny Fite, R-Benton, objected to the payment of ‘part of the grant to the Phillips County Judge.

Phillips County Judge Clark Hall, who is a former representative of the Democratic State, will act as the project manager for the Broadband Grant and will spend about half a day per week on this project for six months, representing 5% of his annual salary of $ 65,000, so Phillips County requested $ 3,250 for this, according to the Phillips County grant application.

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