One of the many states where legislators introduced broadband bills in 2018 was Ohio, where HB 378 appeared to offer a promising answer to funding rural broadband deployment. The bill obtained bipartisan support as it passed through several committees, but prior to the legislature's summer break, enthusiasm cooled.
Looking at Minnesota
HB 378 draws from the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Program by allocating specific funding for deployment. The bill also creates an entity to manage the funding awards. In Ohio, lawmakers anticipated funding would draw from the state’s Ohio Third Frontier Program, which was originally established to assist tech start-ups. In April, HB 378 passed the House with support from both Democrats and Republicans and seemed on a positive track. Two Senate committees also heard SB 225, a companion bill to HB 378.
A second broadband bill, HB 281, addresses only rural last mile connectivity and came before one committee. HB 281 also appeared to have support, but leadership never fast tracked the legislation. HB 281 allocated only $2 million, a fraction of the $100 million required over two years for HB 378. With one generous broadband bill and one much smaller to choose from, experts were left scratching their heads as to why both bills seemed to stop dead in their tracks.
What’s the Hold-up?
Speculation as to why neither of the bills have been advanced further by House and Senate leadership swirls around Governor Kasich’s administration. Democrat Jack Cera believes that the plans for the Third Frontier Fund has held up the process. Cera and other suggest that Governor Kasich wants to focus Third Frontier Funds in other directions, such as smart highways and autonomous vehicles. As far as Cera and others are concerned, broadband for rural Ohio is the priority:
“I think there’s been some push back on it. I would suggest that if the administration and others don’t want to use that funding that we should move forward to use general fund monies on it. To me, it means that type of commitment and other states are making that commitment and we are going to end the year with a fund balance of about $500 million so it would be easy to invest in that. And I think the return to Ohio would be great.”
In August, the Ohio’s state budget office predicted the state would end the fiscal year with a $368 million surplus, but rather than direct funding toward rural broadband deployment, Kasich said he wants to provide a tax cut. Approximately $68 million of the surplus would go to the Rainy Day Fund, increasing it to $2.75 billion. Legislators have suggested using Rainy Day funding to pay for broadband deployment, but Kasich has resisted.
Not Much Interest
While legislators from both sides of the aisle seem ready and willing to get rural Ohioans connected to better Internet access, Kasich has his sights on other priorities.
In early 2017, his 2018/2019 budget proposal included $750,000 to create the Ohio Institute of Technology, a new division in his office. That proposal was stripped out if the budget. The administration’s “Technology First” approach appears to provide funding to research organizations to work on a range of issues such as autonomous vehicles, smart highways, cybersecurity, biomedical discoveries, and accessibility for the disabled, but does not appear to dedicate any funding to deployment. The Third Frontier Fund pays for much of the research.
Lawmakers from both major parties in Ohio’s House and Senate appear ready to embrace the concept of allocating dollars for rural broadband deployment. They have a source of funding and they have a model for how best to manage and distribute that funding. Governor Kasich can still seize the chance to bring better connectivity to his constituents by supporting Ohio’s broadband bills.
The legislature resumes its work in late September.