Lawmakers have agreed to add an additional employee to the Office of Broadband, addressing staffing shortages that have plagued the revamped office.
House negotiators in the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations silo on Monday agreed to the Senate’s suggestion to add $320,000 in operational funds for a full-time equivalent employee and contractors. House negotiators, led by Pace Republican Rep. Jayer Williamson, initially only recommended spending $200,000 in contracted services.
That’s part of a plan from 2021 to provide more staffing and contracted services for the office. The law is designed to encourage broadband companies to expand to rural areas by creating a path for the necessary infrastructure, including identifying federal grants available for local spending.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in 2020 that transferred broadband policy from the Department of Management Services to the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) in an effort to hasten the expansion of broadband in Florida, particularly in rural and underserved areas.
Lawmakers have advanced legislation that would create funding mechanisms within DEO’s Office of Broadband. The measures, carried by Bradenton Republican Sen. Jim Boyd and Polk City Republican Rep. Josie Tomkow, initially would have allocated $500 million in federal dollars for broadband (SB 1800/HB 1543), including establishing a Broadband Pole Replacement Program within the office (SB 1802/HB 1545).
But because the state hasn’t received that infusion of federal funds, lawmakers are moving forward by merely setting up that framework.
While the Office of Broadband’s role has been expanding, the office has found itself understaffed.
Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Loranne Ausley has made bringing high-speed internet to rural land a priority during her legislative tenure. As the broadband bills have advanced through the committee process, Ausley has insisted lawmakers balance it with additional staffing.
However, what lawmakers agreed to Monday might not satisfy the 13-year veteran of the Legislature.
“Anyone that is familiar with that agency and the amount of money that’s coming — and if they’re going to implement the grant program that’s in the bill that we passed last year, with millions or billions of dollars — you’re going to have to have more than one (full-time equivalent) in that office or two FTEs to do it effectively,” Ausley told Florida Politics last month.