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Creation of Nebraska Broadband Office clears first round amid concerns


Creation of Nebraska Broadband Office clears first round amid concerns

Mar 31, 2023 | 3:30 pm ET
By Zach Wendling
Creation of Nebraska Broadband Office clears first round amid concerns
An ultra fast broadband tower is seen on a rural farm. (Sandra Mu/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature gave first-round approval Friday to a measure that would shift authority of up to $400 million in federal broadband funds to the executive branch.

Legislators voted 43-2 to advance Legislative Bill 683, proposed by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. The bill would create the Nebraska Broadband Office, led by a broadband coordinator appointed by the governor.

Billions of dollars have been spent since the late 1990s to boost broadband access with slow results, leading to legislative frustration.

Creation of Nebraska Broadband Office clears first round amid concerns
State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

State Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha and Carol Blood of Bellevue voted against the bill. They voiced concerns the bill would provide “complete authority” to the executive branch and not be transparent.

Currently, the elected members of the Nebraska Public Service Commission manage the program of $100 million to $400 million for broadband build-out in underserved areas of the state.

Gov. Jim Pillen called for the new broadband office shortly after being sworn in as governor this year. He said at the time that “affordable, accessible, dependable and high-speed broadband is essential” in educating and keeping young people in the state.

On Thursday, a spokesman for Pillen said the new structure would be “more accountable” for Nebraska voters and would more quickly expand and improve broadband access.

Transparency and accountability

Cavanaugh, the lone committee member who voted against advancing LB 683, introduced a variety of amendments that would have addressed transparency and oversight concerns.

One amendment would have explicitly stated that meetings of the broadband office would be subject to the Open Meetings Act, although the office, as a state agency, would be covered under the act without the language. 

Cavanaugh and others argued that providing an additional safeguard in specifying the Open Meetings Act requirement in law would not hurt. The vote failed 32-11 against the change.

“We are on a path to take away our own ability and authority to govern with all of these little drips of water that we keep doing where we abdicate our own authority,” Cavanaugh said. “Colleagues, I really hope that you will consider what we are doing with LB 683, how we are growing government … and how we are growing it without much conversation or intention.”

Creation of Nebraska Broadband Office clears first round amid concerns
State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

If passed into law, the broadband office would be required to submit an annual report to the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. The report would also be the focus of a public committee hearing.

Cavanaugh sought to amend the bill for that public hearing to include any comment on the broadband office. Senators voted 32-12 against the amendment.

State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, Transportation and Telecommunications Committee chair, said allegations that the broadband office could be irresponsible or corrupt with no oversight “is just wrong.” 

“To say that this is not transparent is absurd,” Geist said.

‘The PSC has failed us’

Installing infrastructure in rural Nebraska or older urban neighborhoods costs more than in other areas. As many as 90,000 locations in the state lack quality broadband, based on committee testimony.

Blood said the office does not belong in the executive branch despite frustration with how broadband funds have or haven’t been used.

“Why would we give anything to the executive branch to screw up one more time?” she said.

Cavanaugh also addressed what she viewed as “an attack and an assault” on the Public Service Commission.

The commission testified in a neutral capacity at the hearing for LB 683, which leaned skeptical of the need for change.

“I am not comfortable attacking another elected body in this way,” Cavanaugh said.

State Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte said the current system hasn’t worked. Jacobson said he’s “tired of waiting” on the commission and change is necessary so the state does not miss out on federal dollars.

“The PSC has failed us,” Jacobson said. “It’s time for someone to take control of this, and the governor intends to do just that.”