Maine’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology is holding a public hearing Tuesday on LD 2021, “An Act To Provide Funding for Broadband Internet Infrastructure in Unserved and Underserved Areas.” The bill, sponsored by Sen. Erin Herbig, would send $15 million from the General Fund to the ConnectME Authority for the purposes of expanding broadband connectivity in rural Maine. The public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, January 28 at 1 p.m. in Room 211 of the Burton M. Cross Building in Augusta.
Expanding broadband access in Maine is an important public policy goal worth pursuing to ensure Mainers can compete in the 21st century economy. There’s no question that more and more Mainers are working remotely, and high speed internet allows any business in rural Maine to compete with companies across the globe. However, expending public funds and increasing the size and scope of government are not the best means to achieve this goal.
LD 2021 would provide $15 million to the ConnectME Authority in fiscal year 2020-21. The Authority is already slated to receive a funding increase for years to come starting this month. That’s because the current state budget diverted a 10 cent surcharge on telephone lines to the ConnectME Fund that will generate $1.9 million annually for the Authority. The surcharge nearly doubles the Authority’s annual revenue. Put simply, ConnectME does not need additional appropriations, as it has already seen an extensive funding increase.
Over the last 13 years, the ConnectME Authority has given out nearly $13 million for broadband infrastructure and more than $600,000 for community planning projects. The appropriation outlined in LD 2021 would give the Authority, an entity that no longer requires legislative oversight for rulemaking, more funds in a single fiscal year than it has produced since its inception.
At this time, it would be best for lawmakers to wait to see what outcomes the Authority can produce with the new funds it already receives and then evaluate whether additional taxpayer dollars should be allocated from the General Fund for this purpose.
In reality, Mainers’ hard-earned tax dollars should not be appropriated for broadband expansion — they should be used to carry out government’s core functions, such as helping the state’s truly needy and fixing our roads and bridges. The state is experiencing a $232 million annual transportation funding shortfall and thousands of vulnerable, disabled Mainers remain on wait lists for services they desperately need. The state’s top priority right now simply is not expanding broadband.
Throwing taxpayer dollars at a quasi-government agency does not guarantee broadband expansion efforts will improve, or that these public funds will be spent effectively. Given that Governor Mills and her allies in the legislature went on a spending spree last year in the current budget, we must be fiscally responsible and ensure any remaining, available funds are spent on the state’s most pressing priorities.