By Matthew Young, WV Press News Service
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia House of Delegates’ Technology and Infrastructure Committee talked broadband Thursday, ultimately sending an amended version of HB-4001 to the House Finance Committee.
HB 4001, also known as the “Broadband bill,” was the only bill discussed during the meeting. It spawned lengthy, and at times contentious testimony. Initially introduced on Jan. 13 by lead sponsor Del. Linville, the bill seeks to establish the “Legislative Oversight Commission on Department of Economic Development Accountability.” This new commission would be endowed with funding authority and limited subpoena power over the State Treasury and Department of Transportation, as well as other miscellaneous powers related to broadband infrastructure.
The only bill discussed during the meeting, HB 4001, also known as the “Broadband bill,” spawned lengthy, and at times contentious testimony. Initially introduced on January 13 by lead sponsor and Committee Chair Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, the bill seeks to establish the “Legislative Oversight Commission on Department of Economic Development Accountability.” This new commission would be endowed with funding authority and limited subpoena power over the state Treasury and Department of Transportation, as well as other miscellaneous powers related to broadband infrastructure.
In lieu of an overview bill, general counsel opted to explain the “strike and insert” amendment, as several changes had been made to the amendment since last presented to the full committee. Among those changes were provisions for confidentiality concerning utility-pole rights of way and easements, and the addition of language stating that rights of way be provided only when available. A new paragraph was also added to the bill which would increase confidentiality protection for documents provided to the newly-created legislative commission.
Mitch Carmichael, secretary of the Department of Economic Development, was the first to give testimony. After being sworn in, Carmichael provided an explanation of the programs designed to be used for distributing broadband-funds made available through legislature and congressional-actions. There are a total of four programs intended for this purpose, with one “Major Broadband Project Initiative.”
“We partner with internet service providers that come to our office,” Carmichael said. “We put in place a bid-mechanism, a program with guidelines, and so forth. This is to help with bigger projects that will establish ‘last mile’ connectivity.”
Carmichael further stated that there are currently over 300,000 addresses without broadband in West Virginia as defined by the FCC, and that all distribution programs have been designed in anticipation of the receipt of additional federal funding.
Invited next to the podium was Kelly Workman, director of the Office of Broadband. After being sworn in, Workman stated “the federal funding that we’re working with is part of the American Rescue Plan, and it is governed by the U.S. Treasury.” Workman further stated that the Office of Broadband “has not imposed any requirements over those federal regulations.”
Chairman Linville inquired as to the existence of any requirement that the state be re-paid for it’s investment in the programs. Workman then advised the committee that there is indeed a requirement.
“Federal agencies may, and the key word is may, require the imposition of a lien on that property,” Workman said. “What we are asking our local governments to do at this time is, if they are entering into a public/private partnership, which we do encourage, that they negotiate that with the internet service provider. We didn’t feel it was appropriate to impose undue burden on those partnerships, provided that the local government is protected, and the federal investment is protected.”
Workman went on to express her dissatisfaction with section E of the amendment, which requires that “all facilities purchased, installed or funded by any grant program offered by this state shall not be sold for a period of 30-years after the receipt of such funding.”
Workman then explained how this requirement is non-existent in programs offered through the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, or the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
“We would be instituting a requirement over and above the American Rescue Plan Act if we required public ownership for 30-years,” Workman said.
After several additional questions directed at both Workman and Secretary Carmichael, as well as statements of support and objection from numerous committee members, Chairman Linville called for a vote on “the amendment to the amendment.” A count of hands resulted in nine votes for and nine votes against, resulting in a rejection. Linville then called for a vote on the amendment as originally submitted by Vice-Chairman Del. Zach Maynard, R-Lincoln. The second vote resulted in adoption of the amendment by the committee, prompting Del. Maynard to motion for the bill to be passed as amended by the house after referral to the House Committee on Finance. That motion also passed.
Thursday’s meeting had an ambitious agenda; however, as more than an hour was spent deliberating over a proposed modified-amendment to HB 4001, 12 additional pieces of legislation went unaddressed. The meeting was called to order by Chairman Linviille and minutes from the previous meeting were unanimously approved.
Maynard then moved for all sub-committee reports, including “house concurrent resolutions 1, 4, 7, 9, 13, 14, 25, 26, 35, 36, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, and 52, senate concurrent resolutions 21 and 23, and committee substitute for senate concurrent resolution 17 be reported to the floor with a recommendation that they do be adopted, but first be referred to the Committee on Rules.” The motion was unanimously adopted.