DES MOINES — Subcommittee hearings on legislation often give lawmakers an indication which way the wind is blowing.
There was no mistaking the stiff wind pushing passage of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Empower Rural Iowa Act Wednesday.
“I think there is a little bit of support,” Rep. Gary Carlson, R-Muscatine, said, tongue-in-cheek, after hearing support from a crowd of lobbyists representing municipal, rural, business, agricultural, health care, technology and housing interests.
Nearly 100 lobbyists registered on the bill, House Study Bill 204, with more than 60 supporting it and the remainder undecided. At the Ways and Means subcommittee hearing there were questions and suggestions, but no opposition.
“All over the state there is a crying need for both housing and broadband,” Carlson said. It’s nearly impossible to operate a business without broadband connectivity, and housing is often a key in the “challenge for talent.”
Addressing those priorities is what’s the motivation behind the bill, Reynolds’ lobbyist, Kayla Lyon, told the subcommittee.
“The governor is very passionate about rural Iowa,” she said.
Reynolds was in Washington, D.C., meeting with President Donald Trump’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board at the White House.
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In her January Condition of the State speech, Reynolds said Iowa needs to “keep our rural communities connected if we hope to keep our young people or attract others to Iowa.”
As with rivers, railroads, highways and interstates of the past, today “it’s virtual connectivity that has become essential,” the governor said. “Businesses, schools, hospitals and even our combines rely on high-speed internet.”
HSB 204 is a “fantastic step” because it addresses the top concern of business — workforce housing — and the top concern of for educators, especially STEM — broadband access — said Tim Coonan, who was representing several clients.
Reynolds is proposing an appropriation of $10 million a year for two years to support the broadband infrastructure build-out. She has acknowledged funding has been lacking.
Iowa’s Connect Every Acre Act was established in 2015 with an initial $5 million grant program for service providers that invested in rural broadband. But it wasn’t funded until last year and then only $1.3 million was allocated.
There was concern that the bill shifted the focus of state programs to build out broadband infrastructure.
“To truly be ‘future ready,’ state incentives should support download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second, with preference to systems that offer symmetrical speeds,” according to the governor’s December Empower Rural Iowa Initiative report
However, in the bill, that language was removed and the Office of the Chief Information Officer would identify the appropriate download speeds and update them as it deems appropriate.
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Dave Duncan of the Iowa Communications Alliance, whose members serve 318 rural communities, encouraged lawmakers to spend limited funds to target those unserved and underserved areas. He warned that the OCIO’s targeted service area map is out of date.
Jim Carney, representing Mediacom Communications Corp., which has invested $3.2 billion in Iowa, raised concerns about the internet-speed language.
“All areas deserve good speeds,” Carney said, adding that the state shouldn’t create a digital divide with the governor’s plan.
Overall, however, Robert Palmer of the Iowa League of Cities, which represents 942 cities — most small and rural — may have summed up the sentiment about HSB 204.
“Thank you, thank, thank you,” he said.
The bill addresses two important issues, “but the implementation has a ways to go,” Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said. “The question is who pays” for broadband. Also, if the state is going to incentivize housing in smaller communities, what will be done to meet needs in larger cities?
Carlson agreed the devil is in the details, “but we’ll keep working to find the most acceptable language without losing sight of the intent.”
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