Rural broadband getting its day
Monday, a bill that could strike a grand bargain for rural broadband gets its first hearing in the Colorado Senate. Senate Bill 18-002 may finally move the state forward on the issue of rural broadband, one that has stymied lawmakers since 2011. Several efforts to find ways to pay for high speed Internet have failed to achieve what lawmakers have hoped for, so Monday’s hearing could set the stage for success.
Senate President Pro tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling and Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, both Republicans, are the chief sponsors of the measure. It would transfer the state’s High Cost Support Mechanism, a fund originally designed to subsidize the cost of telephone service in underserved areas, to another fund that would subsidize broadband build-out.
The High Cost Support Mechanism (HCSM) is paid for by you and me, as a surcharge on your landline or cell service, usually identified as a Universal Service Charge. It’s 2.6 percent, and billed on phone or voice usage, not on data. For years, CenturyLink has been the biggest beneficiary of that subsidy, as the state’s phone provider of last resort, which means they have to provide phone service wherever it is needed.
A recent report by the Public Utilities Commission, which administers the fund, pointed out revenues to the HCSM are on the decline as consumers increasingly move away from landlines. In 2017, the fund took in £36.1 million, compared to £38.7 million the previous year. The PUC expects that decline to continue.
In 2014, the General Assembly, through its telecom reform package, decided to split the purpose of the HCSM into two: to continue subsidizing landline service and to start covering some of the costs of broadband.
But two lawsuits from CenturyLink and Viaero tied up the transfers to the HCSM. The CenturyLink lawsuit was resolved in 2015; the Viaero case is still in the courts. In 2017, the PUC report said, just £9.4 million was available to transfer to the state’s broadband deployment fund.
SB 2 would speed up those transfers, taking 20 percent of the available dollars every year until the fund fully transfers to broadband, which should happen around 2024, according to Sonnenberg. “This bill may be the best opportunity for rural Colorado to be participants rather than spectators in our state’s economy,” Coram told Colorado Politics recently. While the bill has strong bipartisan support (Democratic House Majority Leader KC Becker of Boulder will carry it in that chamber), CenturyLink is still opposed to the measure, although Mark Soltes, a vice president for public policy and government affairs at CenturyLink said recently “We like the idea of broadband, and we want to build it out, too.” The company’s issue with the bill is that the transfers will come directly out of the dollars that would normally go to CenturyLink, which receives the vast majority of those funds. SB 2 will be heard by the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee on Monday at 1 p.m.
In other news at the Capitol: A bill to cover the costs of internships for those who want to go into ranching or farming will be up for review with the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee next Thursday, Feb.
1. SB 42 comes from a brief interim committee last summer, the Young and Beginning Farmers Interim Study Committee, which met just twice.
Sens. Kerry Donovan of Vail, a Democrat, and Republican Larry Crowder of Alamosa will sponsor the bill. Donovan told this reporter the bill directs the Department of Agriculture to create an internship program, which would reimburse a farmer or rancher for the costs of employing an intern who wants to learn the business. “If you didn’t grow up on a farm or ranch, you need an internship to learn the realities” of farming or ranching, Donovan said.
She calls herself a beginning rancher; she raises Highland cattle, a breed gaining popularity on the Western Slope. Donovan said that while books are helpful, agriculture is a hands-on business. “What do you do when a calf falls in a creek and there’s an angry mom nearby?,” Donovan said, as an example of what you can’t learn from a book. The bill was developed with the National Young Farmers Coalition, which looks for ways to help young people get into farming.
It will be heard Thursday at 1:30 p.m. A bill to fix the unintentional error in last year’s omnibus bill for rural Colorado survived its most challenging hearing this week. Sen.
Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, is the sponsor of SB 88, which deals with an error on marijuana taxes that came out of last year’s SB 17-267. The error was one of omission. A handful of special districts across Colorado have had voter approval to receive a portion of the state’s retail sales marijuana sales tax since 2015.
That language was omitted from SB 267, causing those districts to lose millions of dollars, beginning July 1, 2017. The biggest loser is the eight-county metro Denver Regional Transportation District, which is losing a half-million dollars per month. But a hospital district in southwestern Colorado and a rural regional transportation district in Gunnison are also losing money.
Gardner’s bill would restore the tax and send the issue of another vote back to those special districts, although to date, none have said they plan to do that. Republicans maintain that TABOR requires another vote, even if to correct an unintentional error. The issue was the subject of a failed special session last October.
The bill survived a challenge in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, passing on a 3-2 vote with one Republican, Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial, joining the committee’s two Democrats to approve the bill. The measure now heads to the full Senate, where it has 22 co-sponsors, more than enough to clear that body.
In the House, the bill is sponsored by House Majority Leader KC Becker and has 33 additional sponsors, more than enough to clear that chamber.