AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal to give a sixfold increase in funding to the state agency responsible for expanding rural broadband service won overwhelming support in initial legislative votes on Monday.
It’s an attempt to meet what has been identified as one of Maine’s biggest economic development challenges. A state report in 2013 ranked Maine second-to-last among states for broadband speeds, finding that 40,000 people didn’t have access to high-speed connections and that it would cost $60 million to build an adequate system.
Now, the ConnectME Authority has jurisdiction over helping companies expand services to those rural portions of Maine, but stakeholders including Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s office have said the office’s $1 million annual budget isn’t enough to modernize Maine’s broadband infrastructure.
A bill from Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, would replace the authority by earmarking the state telecommunications excise tax to a new Maine Broadband Initiative in the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, funding it at an estimated $6.25 million per year and making it responsible for issuing bonds to expand broadband infrastructure.
The House recommended the bill in a 116-29 vote on Monday. All Democrats and independents voted for it and were joined by 39 Republicans, most of whom represent rural areas. Another 29 Republicans voted against it. The Senate passed it without a roll call vote on Monday.
It faces further action in both chambers and would need to be funded by the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, whose fiscal office estimates that it would require more than $136,000 in extra funding per year to pay the initiative’s president.
Proponents pitched it as a lifeline to rural towns suffering from population losses that would enable telecommuting across the state, with Rep. Norman Higgins, R-Dover Foxcroft, saying on the House floor that Maine has “outgrown” the ConnectME Authority and calling Bellows’ bill “a modest proposal.”
However, fiscal hawks fought the bill, with Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, pointing to the fiscal estimate and calling it an example of “more wasteful spending.”