Josie Tomkow broadband bill clears first committee, but not without concerns

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Lawmakers are concerned about an unfunded mandate for local utility companies.

When Rep. Josie Tomkow presented her bill seeking to encourage broadband companies to expand in underserved areas it got a thumb’s up, but not without questions.

“It’s not necessarily that people can’t afford this service, it’s that it’s not even given out to where they live,” Tomkow said.

The House Tourism, Infrastructure and Energy Committee cleared the bill 15-1, but several members agree the legislation still needs tinkering.

The bill (HB 1239) encourages cable companies to expand to rural areas by providing a tax exemption for equipment used in the expansion.

The bill also addresses broadband infrastructure by requiring municipal utility companies to allow broadband providers to use their utility poles. Opponents of the plan said that part of the bill needs to be reworked, because as it’s currently written, municipal companies would have to pick up any new costs associated with the additional use of the poles, an unfunded mandate that could ultimately be passed along to customers.

The bill stipulates that any disputes over the new pole attachments like rates, terms, and conditions between broadband providers and local utilities would be adjudicated in circuit court.

“I am concerned with the idea that a government-owned pole that works perfectly fine for the purpose they want to use it for, if someone else wants to use it they have to eat the costs of doing it. It simply doesn’t seem fair,” Rep. Randy Fine said. “I also don’t think the local government should be able to rip off the cable companies either.”

A representative from the Florida Municipal Electric Association, which represents 33 municipal electric systems across the state, claimed the bill requires electric companies to subsidize the expansion of broadband.

The proposed sales tax exemption is expected to come with significant costs, but exactly how much is unknown. The Revenue Estimating Conference has not scored the current bill.

The bill also may have a negative fiscal impact on local governments because of costs associated with the new pole attachments and expected litigation costs over those attachments.

Supporters of the bill say expenses are justified because education and health care are at stake.

A representative from the Florida Parent Teacher Association spoke in support of the bill saying it would ensure access to distance learning programs for students.

The bill’s sponsor agreed.

“It’s a huge problem in a world where we rely heavily on telehealth. We rely heavily on having our children learning from home,” Tomkow said.

The next stop for the bill is the Ways and Means Committee, its second of three committee stops.

Senate companion legislation (SB 1592) is sitting in its second of three committees, Finance and Tax.

Haley Brown

Haley Brown covers state government for FloridaPolitics.com. Previously, Haley covered the West Virginia Legislature and anchored weekend newscasts for WVVA in Bluefield, W.Va. Haley is a Florida native and a graduate of the University of Florida. You can reach her at [email protected]


One comment

  • tom palmer

    March 22, 2021 at 8:30 pm

    The article may not have made clear that some of the infrastructure that serves rural areas involves electric cooperatives, which were set up because investor-owned utilities don’t find it profitable to serve those areas. That adds another financial complication, perhaps. Nevertheless, the idea of getting broadband to everyone is a good one, but the cost of providing it may need to be more straightforward and fair.

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