Efforts to expand broadband access throughout Wisconsin would receive an additional $125 million under a motion approved Tuesday by Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee.
That's about $75 million less than what Democratic Gov. Tony Evers included in his 2021-23 budget proposal after declaring 2021 the "Year of Broadband." The funding in the budget is in addition to $100 million in federal stimulus grant funding that Evers has earmarked for broadband expansion efforts.
Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, praised the move as a "great first step" and a "good investment in rural communities."
The state Public Service Commission estimates that about 800,000 people in Wisconsin — or 14% of its population — don't have the infrastructure needed for an internet connection fast or reliable enough to meet the federal definition of broadband, which requires download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second. The Federal Communications Commission places the estimate closer to 400,000 people.
A 2020 report by the research arm of the Wisconsin Counties Association found that Wisconsin's level of broadband accessibility is lower than the national average and 35 other states.
The Republican measure would be financed through bonds, the details of which were not included in the proposal passed Tuesday night. Assuming the bonds are issued over 20 years, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates a total interest cost of $35 million.
Democrats argued the state should take advantage of its current rosy budget estimates and pay for the grants upfront rather than taking on debt.
"Who the hell borrows $125 million for something that could very well be obsolete when it’s paid off in 20 years?" asked Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. "It's not like a road where you can patch it and fix it along the way."
Sen. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, argued that the Republican plan will benefit the entire state, noting that people of all political persuasions agree the state needs improved internet access — especially in its rural communities.
The measure passed on a party-line vote.
The Joint Finance Committee will return to work on Thursday. Once the committee is done with its work, the budget will go to the Assembly and Senate for their approval, before landing on Evers' desk. The governor can approve it, veto it or modify it with his partial veto powers.
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