Lawmakers eye new funding plan to expand rural broadband

    State reps. John Corbett, Sam Watson and Rick Jasperse enjoy a lighter moment during a meeting of the House Rural Development Council held Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019. The three are the council’s new leadership. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

    A key legislative group bent on lifting rural Georgia out of economic doldrums is gearing up for a fresh push to identify ways to pay for expanding broadband access in the state’s less populated areas.

    This comes on the heels of a failed effort earlier this year to fund broadband by expanding an existing tax to include streaming services, e-books and other digital items that have become so prevalent today. That proposal – known as the “Netflix tax” – has struggled to gain traction.

    This time, the House Rural Development Council wants to look at empowering an obscure state agency called the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority to loan out money for broadband projects – a change that would require a constitutional amendment and funding.

    The authority has provided billions of dollars in low-interest loans to cities, counties and other local authorities to upgrade water, wastewater and solid waste systems. The panel is proposing to allow the authority to issue bonds to create a state loan program for broadband, too.

    “I think if you put that on a constitutional amendment that it will pass with flying colors,” Rep. Sam Watson, who co-chairs the council, said Thursday in a phone interview. “Everybody wants broadband. Everybody wants better broadband. There’s definitely a need for it. The catch would be where’s the money going to come from?”

    That question remains unanswered right now. And going into a legislative session where budget cuts await, the prospects of new state dollars going toward broadband appear grim. Watson said he sees the proposal as a way to give local officials an opportunity to borrow money to build out broadband infrastructure, even it’s just small amounts at a time

    The lack of broadband in rural Georgia – an estimated 1.6 million Georgians live without it – has dogged lawmakers for years. Legislators created the framework for a grant program a couple years ago, but haven’t managed to fund it.

    The new proposal was among a list of wide-ranging recommendations that the council released Thursday. And broadband access should be at the center of all of it, said Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican.

    “None of this is going to happen until we get broadband all across this state, and this ought to be the centerpiece of our recommendations,” Stephens said.

    Some of the proposals, like a plan to restructure the regional commissions, were already in the works last year but were sidelined when discussions over two of the group’s other priorities – overhauling health care facility regulations and imposing hospital transparency requirements – dominated the session.

    The lawmakers also want to provide incentives for the creation of “voluntary” regional development authorities that include at least three counties. The plan would allow regional parks to receive state funding to build and equip a general practitioner medical facility.

    The group is also proposing to expand the rural physician tax credit to include nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other medical professionals, as well as create a state psychiatric residency program to help fill a shortage of mental health services in rural Georgia.

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.