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Broadband funding raises issues

Republicans might have swept the state legislative races, but they may have just handed Democrats some easy campaign ads for the 2022 midterm election.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission selected nine companies as winning bidders for broadband expansion projects as part of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I Auction.

The nine selected companies successfully won contracts to expand high-speed broadband internet to 119,267 unserved Census tracts in West Virginia over the next 10 years. It’s great news, even though most of the auction funding went to Frontier Communications, which can barely keep its current phone and internet system functioning.

The total investment the state was able to pull down from the FCC was $362.1 million out of a possible $766 million that was available to the state. Again, wonderful news and any funding is good funding. The problem is when lawmakers make promises and pledges based on a funding number and the state doesn’t get the funding expected.

Back in October, Republicans lawmakers (mostly state senators) and Republican legislative candidates were joined by Gov. Jim Justice on the north-side steps at the Capitol. Media were informed by the media advisory from the Governor’s Office, even though it was really a political campaign event. I’m still not entirely sure the Governor was quite aware it was a political event.

Either way, on those steps those Republican lawmakers and candidates pledged $1 billion toward broadband expansion.

“We’re going to put a billion — a billion with a ‘B’ — a billion dollars into absolutely creating broadband all across this state and doing it in a very expeditious way and doing it now,” Justice said on Oct. 14.

Except that $1 billion included the $766 million the state hoped to pull down through the FCC rural broadband auction, plus $50 million in federal C.A.R.E.S. Act funds set aside for broadband expansion. The only concrete thing the Republicans on those steps pledged to do was invest tax dollars — $50 million starting in fiscal year 2022 and for the next two fiscal years after that – for broadband.

Not only is the state not getting $766 million from the FCC, only $33 million can be used from the C.A.R.E.S. Act by the end of the year before those dollars get clawed back by the federal government.

So, instead of pledging to invest $1 billion for broadband expansion, it’s really only $543 million — half a billion.

Again, $543 million is great and is much needed. It’s good news in a state where even your internet speeds in the urban parts of the state leave much to be desired. And keep in mind that $362 million from the FCC auction will go to bring internet in unserved parts of the state. Part two of the auction will help areas that have some service.

Had lawmakers simply promised to fund $150 million for broadband expansion over three years, that would be fine. But they made much ado about pledging $1 billion for broadband expansion in a blatantly political event. Even a Democratic member of the House and defeated candidate for state Senate — Andrew Robinson — stood on the steps until he realized he was the only Democrat there and they were only talking about the Republican majority.

I’m not sure if Mr. Robinson plans to seek a legislative office again in 2022, but he now has some fodder upon which to campaign. I can already see the ads. “Republican lawmaker X pledged to bring $1 billion to West Virginia for broadband but came up short. Are your internet speeds better today than they were two years ago?”

•••

Speaking of House Democrats, my sources tell me there is some heartburn in the caucus over the selection of Kanawha County Democrat Doug Skaff as the new minority leader to replace outgoing Harrison County lawmaker Tim Miley.

Skaff is a good, solid moderate Democratic lawmaker. Considering the Republican wave that increased its majority from 58 to 76 seats combined with the trouncing of some of the more progressive candidates, picking a moderate Democrat as the minority leader is a smart move.

However, there are some concerns with Skaff’s minority stake in HD Media, the publisher of several newspapers, including The Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Huntington Herald Dispatch. Skaff also is the president of HD Media.

During the governor’s race, the state Republican Party constantly attacked Democratic candidate and Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango over his minority stake in HD Media, even after he divested himself of that stake. Skaff could easily find himself in a similar predicament.

I’m told there is some regret within the caucus that they didn’t select Raleigh County lawmaker Mick Bates as minority leader. He has been the defender of the caucus budget priorities on the House Finance Committee. But Bates also served as caucus chairman and some put the blame on him for not anticipating the Republican wave. But that wave was really a tsunami, so how do you prepare for that?

It’s hard to please 24 people.

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