IOWA LEGISLATURE

Senate committee advances effort to boost broadband access

Panels also approve legislation on verification for public benefits, profits for student-athletes

The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol is seen in 2018 in Des Moines. (The Gazette)
The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol is seen in 2018 in Des Moines. (The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Bills seeking to build out major broadband expansions in Iowa, compensate college athletes and streamline the process to determine recipient eligibility for public assistance programs cleared Senate committees Tuesday after some robust debate.

The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved the framework and platform for Gov. Kim Reynolds’ priority to deliver $450 million over three years for grants to companies applying for state money to extend broadband service to underserved areas. Senate Study Bill 1089 includes a three-tiered grant system, but it was clear senators increasingly are interested in projects offering download and upload speeds of 100 megabits per second.

“We want every Iowan, rural or urban, to feel like they’re included in this big, robust bill,” said Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, who noted the money to fund the initiative will come later in a separate bill. “For Iowa to be top of mind for workforce, we need it; for Iowa to be top of mind for quality of life; we need it.”

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, called the bill a “very exciting piece of legislation” that needs additional public input to achieve its intended goal.

Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, expressed concern that work needed to be done by subcommittee to ensure direct participation of Iowans rather than a process that now moves into closed-door discussions awaiting floor debate by the full Senate.

“There is a lot of taxpayer money that we’re talking about and a great deal of power given to one person who is appointed by the governor,” Petersen said.

“This is a big deal,” she added. “The last thing we need is a grant program where we find out somebody has gotten drunk with power and given out millions and millions of taxpayer dollars without community input, without some way of distributing these grants to the communities that need it the most.”

Koelker called the broadband bill a work in progress, adding “it’s kind of like a Christmas tree you put in the middle of the room, and everyone shows up and they want some presents.”

Public assistance verification

Senate Commerce Committee members, on an 11-6 vote, approved a separate bill that directs the state Department of Human Services to upgrade its system of verifying eligibility for public assistance programs.

Senate Study Bill 1125 proposes the state agency buy the system or enlist a private vendor to verify assets, identity and other eligibility requirements for hundreds of thousands of Iowans participating in public assistance programs involving federal and state benefits no later than July 1, 2022.

“The point of the bill is not to eliminate eligibility for people, it is to make sure that people who are applying are eligible,” said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, who added that modernizing the process with technology could make the work faster, cheaper and more accurate.

Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, argued unsuccessfully that DHS officials already are working with a private company on a free one-year trial pilot project to verify data. A separate federal model is being prepared for states that should be available this spring, requiring a data-sharing agreement but no purchase cost to the state.

“I believe that we don’t need this bill,” said Mathis, who called it pricey, pointless and overly complex.

“It’s a waste of tax dollars when something coming down the pike is exactly what we need,” she added, noting a similar bill previously carried an estimated state cost of $4 million. “It feels like we are building something and then imposing it on a department that is already working toward trying to make the system better.”

Profits for student-athletes

And finally, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved legislation that would allow student-athletes to profit from promotional use of their names, images and likenesses as early as July.

“This is really about fairness,” said committee chairman Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale.

Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, said Senate File 245 is similar to legislation enacted in six other states. Student-athletes in Iowa should not “have any lesser or fewer rights than athletes in other states,” he said.

The NCAA announced Jan. 11 it would postpone voting on proposals to change rules surrounding names, images and likenesses after receiving a message from the U.S. Department of Justice antitrust division. However, Boulton and Zaun said states are looking at drafting their own laws because the NCAA hasn’t acted on its promise to set national policy, and Iowa athletes “would be at a big disadvantage” if nothing is done.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.