The Montana Legislature has advanced a Republican proposal to determine how the state will allocate as much as $700 million in rural broadband funding in the coming years, leaving a Democrat-sponsored proposal that passed the House earlier this year in the lurch.
Senate Bill 531, sponsored by Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, amends the framework the state used previously to award $309 million in broadband grants. That process was criticized by Democrats and some Montana-based internet service providers for the amount of funding, $110 million, it awarded to national telecom giant Charter Communications for projects that primarily serve areas on the outskirts of Montana’s major cities. A Montana Free Press analysis found that nearly two-thirds of that money went to projects in the state’s eight most populous counties.
Salomon’s bill, which prepares the state to spend a new round of broadband money made available by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, renews an advisory commission formed to advise Gov. Greg Gianforte on broadband grant awards and adjusts some of the statutory language used to define which areas qualify for funding. It defines “broadband” to include both wired and radio-based services.
As his bill was debated on the Senate floor April 3, Salomon said it was intended to align the state’s broadband rules with the requirements of the new federal program, which will give the state less discretion than the prior funding from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act.
“We have to look at what we have, what we need, and how to best spend these dollars and submit our plans to the feds for approval before we get any funds,” Salomon said. “This bill is designed to accomplish those requirements while giving us the flexibility we need to navigate this complex grant program.”
A committee advising Gov. Greg Gianforte on a massive state grant program billed as a historic effort to enhance broadband connectivity across rural Montana has plowed into rocky ground as it considers a list of recommended projects this month. An initial ranking of proposed grants to private telecom companies, produced by the state Department of…
Lawmakers in the Montana House gave a preliminary thumbs-up to a bill that would expand legislative oversight of the state’s federally funded broadband internet program, which will likely direct hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidizing rural Montana connectivity in the coming years.
Unlike the now-tabled Democratic proposal, Rep. Katie Sullivan’s House Bill 484, SB 531 doesn’t shift the advisory commission to include representation from tribal nations or Montana-based telecom companies. Additionally, it skips provisions in the Democratic bill that explicitly sought to prioritize awards to Montana providers and focus spending on rural projects that would be economically infeasible without state support.
Democrats, who control about one-third of the seats in the Legislature, had also wanted partisan balance on the broadband commission going forward. Their bill specified that the advisory commission include three lawmakers from each party and exclude three Gianforte administration officials who have votes on the current commission. The Republican bill allows GOP legislative leadership to appoint six lawmakers to the commission, four Republicans and two Democrats and retains the executive branch officials.
Salmon’s bill has been backed by the Gianforte administration, including Department of Administration Director Misty Ann Giles, who oversaw the initial round of broadband grants.
Giles said at a committee meeting March 28 that the language in the Salomon bill has been kept “intentionally vague” in places while the state awaits more guidance on the specifics of the federal strings that will be attached to the new round of broadband money.
It isn’t yet clear precisely how much the state will get in the new round of federal funding, Giles also said, but the federal infrastructure act’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program guarantees the state at least $100 million. She estimated additional need-based funding would bring between $300 million and $700 million to the state, on top of separate awards to tribal governments.
Both the American Rescue Plan Act, which was nominally a coronavirus relief measure, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed Congress with largely Democratic support and Republican opposition. Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, supported the spending; Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale, both Republicans, voted against the measures.
The Democrat-sponsored state broadband bill, HB 484, passed the House with bipartisan support March 2 but stalled in a Senate committee vote last week. The Republican bill, SB 531, passed the Senate unanimously April 4 and cleared the House, 73-25, Wednesday with opposition from most Democrats.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said during the Salomon bill’s House floor debate that she believed it was a “missed opportunity” that failed to address the shortcomings of the prior broadband effort.
“There’s nothing in this bill that changes the advisory commission’s ability to ensure these dollars are prioritized for rural areas,” Abbot said.
Because the bill was amended in the House, SB 531 faces further votes in the Senate before heading to the governor’s desk.
According to BroadbandNow, which compiles internet access data, Montana is ranked last in the nation for the fraction of residents, 73%, that have access to high-speed internet with at least 100 megabits per second connectivity.
This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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