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Iowa lawmakers predict ‘significant investment’ to bridge internet gaps
DES MOINES - There's bipartisan legislative support for making a major investment in broadband internet expansion in Iowa, but leaders aren't ready to commit to fully funding Gov. Kim Reynolds's request for $450 million over three years until they see the latest state revenue projections made later this month.
'What I've been saying all along is I think that dollars-wise there will be a significant investment,” Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, told reporters Thursday. 'I can't tell you what that will be, but from what I'm hearing from the caucus, it will be significant.”
Grassley made his comments shortly after a House Information Technology subcommittee approved a bill that generally was in agreement with policies Reynolds laid out in January during her Condition of the State address.
In that subcommittee meeting. Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Jefferson, said he and fellow Republicans haven't been able to 'hammer that number down yet.”
'I want to be really close to that governor's number and be aggressive with this,” Radio Iowa reported Thompson as saying during a hearing on House File 796.
In asking for the $450 million, Reynolds told lawmakers she's 'done taking small steps and hoping for big change” in expanding broadband.
About a third of Iowa's 99 counties still are 'broadband deserts” where high-speed internet is seldom offered and, for many Iowans, unaffordable, Reynolds said. Iowa also has the second-lowest broadband speeds in the country.
Her goal, he said, is for every part of Iowa to have affordable, high-speed broadband by 2025.
While the dearth of high-speed broadband in many places in Iowa has been a concern of business and agriculture for years, the pandemic pushed the issue to the fore over the last year as schools, workplaces and hospitals have relied on the internet like never before for virtual learning, work from home and telemedicine.
John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, the third-ranking House Republican, said a final broadband plan will probably be 'at or near” $450 million.
'I think that it is imperative that we have this build-out so that Iowa stays and is competitive,” Wills said.
Like Grassley, Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, agreed that after the Revenue Estimating Conference meets 'we'll have a much better sense of where we are. We'll know kind of what kind of budget we have to work with.”
The panel will meet March 19 to provide an update on state revenues, which have dipped by about 2 percent over the past year, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.
Democrats also support a major investment in building out internet access to Iowans, but expressed concern that Republicans are dropping some oversight provisions that are necessary.
House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said he and other Democrats were surprised, but pleased, with Reynolds' $450 million proposal.
'I'm pleased that she proposed a number that is very meaningful and will have an impact on this,” he said.
But if the state is investing that much, he said he wants oversight provisions to make sure 'that we're actually doing something that is going to raise the bar and provide the service that is needed.”
It will be important for the state, including lawmakers, to have a 'really clear vision about how you want to spend that money to get the most bang for your taxpayer buck,” added Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville.
Reynolds has called for offering grants to companies that extend broadband service with both upload and download speeds of 100 megabits per second.
However, that high-speed requirement was not included in HF 796.
Although not ready to commit to a funding amount, Grassley said there's general agreement on broadband expansion policy.
'We're in a good place,” he said.
A companion bill, Senate File 390, has been approved by the Commerce Committee.
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