Colorado Bill Aims To Hinder Opt-Out, Restrict Local Authority Even More

When local elected officials in Colorado put the issue before constituents last fall, voters in almost 50 communities chose overwhelmingly to reclaim local telecommunications authority. Colorado's state law that strips away local authority, SB 152, permits opt-out through referendum. Referendums are expensive for local communities, but at least they are a way to reclaim the power to decide their own future. 

That ability to opt out will get more expensive and more burdensome if a new bill becomes law. Even though the state removed local authority with SB 152, this bill demonstrates that the legislature can still find a way to strip away more local control when big corporate providers feel threatened.

Local Leaders Concerned

SB 136, sponsored by Kerry Donovan, was introduced on March 4th under the guise of "modernizing" the dreaded SB 152. The bill is now waiting for a hearing in the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee. According to the Aspen Daily News, Pitkin County Commissioners are wary of the bill's consequences. So are we. Ninety-two percent of Pitkin County voters approved the opt-out of SB 152 last November, thereby reclaiming authority. The county has already completed a needs assessment and is obtaining bids for telecommunications infrastructure; they don't want this bill to derail their efforts.

Kara Sillbernagel, Pitkin County analyst, shared her interpretation with the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC):

...[A] concern is SB 136 could open the door to potential litigation in the opt-out process.

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Silbernagel added that, in her opinion, the language complicates the issue away from the simple opt-out solution, and introduces terms which have left governments that opted out “feeling vulnerable.”

“[Concerns are that] it actually seems to be more restrictive for counties moving forward,” she said.

"Modernized" Language = "Modernized" Barriers

Among other changes, the proposed bill requires local governments to give a 60-day notice to private providers if an SB 152 opt-out question will be on the ballot. Local governments are already required to provide notice when a new measure is to be included on a ballot; this creates an additional requirement for measures related to broadband.

The bill also mandates that, prior to the election, a local community must develop and publicize a detailed plan as to what types of services it intends to offer, where the services would be offered, projected revenues, projected expenses, and why the municipality or its partner is seeking to offer those services. If a municipality seeks to work with a private sector partner, the requirement that they release this type of information will make any potential partner think twice. Competitors that have access to such data have an edge before the project has permission to commence.

There also appears to be considerable confusion in the bill's language regarding the term "services." Fiber, wireless, direct, indirect, video, voice? The ambiguity is off-putting for any community and potential partner hoping to offer connectivity where the big corporate providers won't go while also avoiding legal challenges. How can a community create a plan that does not run afoul of the law if the details of the law are clouded in mystery?

This section of the bill will increase the burden it places on local government. It will increase costs to communities early in the process, extend the timetable for proposed projects, and make local governments and their partners vulnerable to litigation from deep-pocketed incumbent providers. A legal challenge can stop a proposed project in its tracks simply by asserting that a business plan is ill-defined.

From the Aspen Daily News artice:

Commissioner Patti Clapper said the bill sounded like blowback from industry due to so many jurisdictions voting to opt-out of SB-152.

“It almost seems like … a way for industry to come in from the back door and nail us the other way around,” she said.

A Simple Solution

The bill attempts to remove barriers that prevent communities from entering into public private partnerships. The only barriers in Colorado are those put in place by SB 152. Rather than toying with unnecessary changes that make the barrier more restrictive, the best option is to repeal SB 152 and let local communities decide for themselves how best to solve their connectivity needs.