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Final state budget proposal scraps measure to expand broadband in rural Virginia
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Final state budget proposal scraps measure to expand broadband in rural Virginia

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Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, and Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, chair of the Senate Finance & Appropriations Committee, chat before the start of an Oct. 7 Senate session inside the Science Museum in Richmond.

RICHMOND—Eight weeks after starting a special session intended to address the state budget, the Virginia General Assembly is close to passing a revised spending plan.

The legislature is hoping to wrap up its work by the end of this week after it passes a revised biennium budget, which had been upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

The final revised budget that both chambers still need to approve does not include a proposal to allow municipal broadband authorities to compete with the private sector for state grants to provide high-speed internet in hard-to-reach areas.

The House of Delegates had supported the measure to allow municipal broadband authorities to apply for state grant money from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative to provide last-mile broadband infrastructure, which is the part of the network that connects individual homes and businesses to the broader network.

The VATI program requires funded projects to be public-private partnerships, with a local government partnering with a private sector internet service provider to bring service to that community. So when taxpayer-funded municipal broadband authorities apply for these grants, they come with a private sector partner.

The proposal in the House budget would have allowed the municipal broadband authorities to provide their own matching funds for the projects and not have to rely on a private sector partner. This pilot would only operate during fiscal year 2022.

Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, who requested the measure be put into the budget, said while the public-private partnerships should incentivize getting broadband into rural areas, broadband authorities believe they can address that challenge better without a private partner.

Expanding broadband in Southwest, Southside and the Eastern Shore has been especially challenging because it’s so expensive to reach more remote and spread out residences or lay cable in certain terrain.

“All approaches to reaching unserved areas need to be looked at,” Sickles said.

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The cable companies lobbied hard against the measure. The Senate did not include the proposal in its version of the budget. The biennium budget still includes about $85 million for broadband deployment.

Senators who were resistant to passing the measure said it was a significant policy change they weren’t ready to make.

“We need to make sure we’re doing the right thing, and I wasn’t convinced we should be doing it out of turn,” Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said Wednesday.

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, said the issue should have come before the Broadband Advisory Council, of which she serves as chairwoman. The budget requests the council to review the matter and provide feedback before the regular legislative session that begins in January.

The House and Senate may pass the final spending plan on Friday, bringing to an end what has been a lengthy special session that has also included a lot of attention on police and criminal justice reform.

The General Assembly adjourned in March with a $135 billion budget. The coronavirus pandemic hurt the state’s revenues, causing Gov. Ralph Northam to ask the legislators to return for a special session to pass a new budget without many of the progressive priorities Democrats had included.

Northam announced Wednesday that the state’s revenues have continued to rise even while the economy struggles to recover from the pandemic.

Revenues rose 7.6% in September, compared with the same month a year ago, and are up almost 10% for the fiscal year that began on July 1. The increase was attributed to growth in payroll withholding, corporate and recordation tax collections.

“Virginia’s General Fund revenues are increasing, and we have been able to avoid the major revenue shocks that other states are experiencing because of the ongoing pandemic,” Northam said in a statement.

“This is the result of the proactive measures we have taken to mitigate the impacts of the virus on our economy and put the Commonwealth on the path toward a strong recovery.”

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