AUGUSTA, Maine — Efforts in the Maine Legislature to increase broadband funding — a stalled priority of Gov. Janet Mills — are moving forward in 2020, though majority Democrats are split between borrowing or spending outright with Republicans skeptical of both options.
Smarting from their defeat last August, when Republicans blocked a $15 million bond for broadband expansion, Democrats are looking for another way to fund it. It’s become one of their biggest priorities in the short session and has been tied to everything from boosting telehealth to making the state more economically viable.
The Democratic governor called for that same amount to be funded in the Legislature last week. Her 10-year economic plan proposes methods to increase aggressive lending in rural broadband projects or boost state infrastructure grants.
The ConnectME Authority, the state agency that provides grant money and guidance to communities looking to bring broadband to their areas, says the state needs to contribute $200 million over the next five years to meet the goals in its action plan to build out the state’s internet infrastructure.
Interest in the issue is coalescing around a bill from Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, which proposes a one-time $15 million appropriation to the ConnectME Authority. Herbig said her measure will provide the incentive needed to get private internet providers to expand into areas that are otherwise unprofitable for them.
Another bill from Rep. David McCrea, D-Fort Fairfield, would allocate $8 million each year to the authority. Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, aims to loosen the requirements for municipalities seeking grant funding for broadband projects and would require providers to share some data to get a sense of where providers are building out.
Bonding is not completely off the table yet. Two bills collectively proposing $120 million in bonds with a similar structure to Herbig’s bill held over from past year are currently before the Legislature’s financial appropriations committee.
Republicans, saying they need more information and wondering if money might be better spent elsewhere, may not go for any of it. Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter, said he wants to make sure the state gets the “most bang for their buck” and that as many people should be served as possible if funding is expanded.
“Throwing taxpayer dollars at a quasi-government agency does not guarantee broadband expansion efforts will improve,” said Adam Crepeau, a policy analyst for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, which opposes the bill.
Peggy Schaffer, executive director of the ConnectME Authority, said any money is a good start. She said knowing funding is coming — regardless of the amount — will help communities who are ready to start their own projects. The agency says $600 million is needed to connect 95 percent of the state’s residents to high-speed internet. It proposed the state pay 25 percent of that cost, with the rest coming from public-private partnerships.
Schaffer said the money from Herbig’s bill would be more funding than the authority has had in the past 14 years, which has been about $900,000 annually. The Legislature approved additional funding from a different telephone bill surcharge that is expected to provide the authority with another $1.9 million.
“The important thing is that we actually begin to move forward,” she said.