(FARM AND DAIRY) – Broadband advocates and Pennsylvania legislators aren’t thrilled about Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget, introduced Feb. 2.
It talks about the importance of broadband. It proposes expanding some other funding programs, to include broadband as an eligible use. But they haven’t been able to find an exact amount of funding dedicated to broadband in the proposal.
“Liking broadband expansion is fine, but show me the money,” said retired lobbyist Vince Phillips, who advocated for broadband with the Pennsylvania State Grange before recently retiring.
Legislators are also concerned about $5 million dedicated to broadband grants through Senate Bill 835, which passed the legislature in November. Several legislators, including Republican Sen. Wayne Langerholc, of Richland Township, who prime sponsored the bill, released statements and newsletters saying the budget eliminated that funding.
A spokesperson from Wolf’s office told Farm and Dairy in an email the grant funding from the bill would be appropriated to the Commonwealth Financing Authority, and the Department of Community and Economic Development is drafting guidelines for that grant program.
The governor’s proposed budget notes that under Act 132, or, Senate Bill 835, a broadband tax credit was eliminated and replaced with the grant program. But advocates and legislators still want to see more funding for broadband in the state.
“Our ultimate goal really is to see a dedicated line item in the future for broadband,” said Carrie Nace, legislative director for the Pennsylvania State Grange, in a phone call with Farm and Dairy.
The proposed budget also suggests expanding the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program to include broadband as an eligible use.
Several programs within the Department of Community and Economic Development include broadband as an eligible use for funds, but Wolf’s office did not respond to questions about how much funding is dedicated to broadband within those programs.
“If … it’s a real funding source and not smoke and mirrors, I mean, I guess I don’t have a problem with it … but how come I can’t find it?” Phillips said.
Wayne Campbell, president of the grange, told Farm and Dairy the grange wants to see Pennsylvania expand on the work done by Senate Bill 835.
“Finances are going to be the biggest thing,” he said.
Republican Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, of York Township, chair of the state Senate Communications and Technology Committee, told Farm and Dairy the Mobile Telecommunications Broadband Investment Tax Credit was intended to deploy broadband to unserved and underserved areas, but was essentially providing redundant coverage. So, the legislature suggested moving the funding to a grant program.
Regardless, $5 million for broadband still doesn’t go very far, said Republican Sen. Gene Yaw, of Loyalsock Township, who is also the chair of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, in a phone call with Farm and Dairy.
The center recently had a hearing with Tri-Co Connections, an LLC of Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, which is building out about 2,800 miles of fiber in seven Pennsylvania counties to provide broadband service. The cooperative, which has gotten various state and federal funding for the project, is estimating its project will cost a total of around $80 million.
“That’s just one small area,” Yaw said. “What’s $5 million going to do across the state? Every little bit helps, don’t get me wrong … [but we] need a lot more funding.”
Yaw said the state may need more federal funding, or some type of legislation similar to the Rural Electrification Act, which brought electricity to many rural areas, largely through cooperatives.
Wolf’s office said he has urged the federal government to invest more in infrastructure, including broadband, and that the Department of Community and Economic Development helps identify federal resources for broadband.
Wolf also unveiled a $3 billion “Back to Work PA” plan Feb. 22, which includes focus on broadband access and shifts the originally $4.5 billion Restore PA plan to focus more on workforce development and pandemic recovery. The program would be funded by a severance tax on the natural gas industry.
Phillips-Hill said Wolf has proposed a severance tax on the natural gas industry many times over the years.
“Pennsylvania already has an impact fee,” she said. “That fee is distributed to the communities impacted by natural gas drilling activity, as opposed to going straight into the state’s coffers.”
Campbell would rather not see broadband expansion funded by a severance tax.
“What happens if the natural gas industry stops pulling gas from under Pennsylvania?” he said.
Campbell is also concerned about how much of the funding for the initiative would actually go to broadband, as opposed to other issues. Wolf’s office did not respond to questions about how much of the funding from the plan would go to broadband.
The grange has been advocating for broadband access for about eight years now. In the beginning, it was hard to even get people’s attention, Campbell said. Now, broadband access is on many people’s minds.
“We’re certainly making progress … but we’ve still got a long way to go,” Campbell said. “We just can’t let it move to the back burner. It has to stay in the forefront.”
“We don’t want to lose momentum from last year,” added Nace.
In the last session, the legislature also addressed some of the regulation challenges for expanding access, like getting more access to rights of way and easements for providers and cooperatives. Phillips-Hill is hoping to continue making progress on those types of things, and push for more mapping of state and local assets, and broadband service data.
“This is a need that is not going to go away,” she said.
Nace and Phillips-Hill both said while politicians and officials have been calling for more broadband access for several years, there hasn’t been much in the way of funding dedicated specifically to broadband.
“A lot of good talk has come out of the administration, but we haven’t really seen any firm or definitive action,” Phillips-Hill said.