By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The effort to expand broadband internet to underserved rural areas in Wisconsin would get a $125 million boost under a provision approved Tuesday by the Republican-controlled budget committee, about $75 million less in state funding than Gov. Tony Evers proposed.
The state would borrow the $125 million to issue grants for broadband expansion grants approved by the Public Service Commission.
The state funding would be on top of federal coronavirus relief money coming to Wisconsin that can be spent on broadband. Evers previously announced that $100 million in federal infrastructure money will go toward new broadband grants.
Expanding broadband access is one of the few issues in the Statehouse where Republicans and Democrats both agree it should be a priority. Evers declared 2021 “The Year of Broadband” and proposed spending about $200 million in state dollars on broadband over the next two years. The majority of that, about $152 million, would go toward grants for expanding service to underserved areas.
Republican supporters said the money would deal with the ongoing need of making high-speed internet services available in rural areas. But Democrats faulted the plan spending less than what Evers wanted and for borrowing to pay for the grants rather than direct taxpayer funding that would require paying interest.
Republican Sen. Joan Ballweg said Democrats and Republicans agree on the importance of improving broadband service and the GOP plan will benefit the entire state.
About $35 million would have to be paid in interest on the broadband borrowing, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said.
It makes no sense to pay more to borrow for the grants, rather than pay for them with cash, given that the state has a projected budget surplus of $4.4 billion, Democrats said. Republicans plan to use most of that money for a yet-to-be-announced tax cut.
“Who the hell borrows $125 million for something that could very well be obsolete when it’s paid off in 20 years?” said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach. “For the life of me, I don’t get it. I absolutely don’t understand it.”
The funding was approved on a party line 11-4 vote, with all Republicans in support and Democrats against.
The budget committee is working on finishing its budget plan for the Legislature to vote on perhaps as soon as later this month. It would then go to Evers, who can make changes with his line-item veto.
Broadband internet is defined by the Federal Communications Commission of being a service with a speed of at least 25 Megabits a second download and 3 Megabits a second upload speed. The FCC estimates that about 392,500 Wisconsin residents have no access to speeds that fast, with nearly all of them in rural areas.
That places Wisconsin at the bottom of its neighboring states and below the national average, based on FCC broadband access data from 2019.
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission estimates it would cost between $740 million and $1.4 billion to provide broadband service equal to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload to everyone in the state who currently lacks it.
There is a higher speed minimum for use of the federal money sent to Wisconsin. The $100 million in new grants that Evers announced can only be spent on expansion projects that meet or exceed 100 Mbps download and upload speeds. It can drop to as low as 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload only if higher speeds are not possible owing to geography or excessive costs.
In April, Evers vetoed a Republican -authored bill that would have allocated $500 million in one-time federal stimulus funds for broadband expansion.
In other moves, Republicans approved additional funding for hospitals, nursing homes and other long-term-care centers and personal-care workers. But Democrats said not enough was done to help the state’s most vulnerable populations, as Republicans nixed proposed funding for a variety of programs targeting women, minorities and low-income neighborhoods.