MONTPELIER — Sen. Randy Brock was answering a question Tuesday morning about the Senate’s version of H. 360, a bill setting the framework for building out universal high-speed broadband across Vermont, when his Zoom feed suddenly gave out and he disappeared from the Senate’s virtual ranks.
“We have a broadband issue right here, right now,” Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, the ex-officio Senate president, said.
Brock, R-Franklin, returned in plenty of time for the Senate to unanimously pass the bill, which proposes spending millions in federal aid to assure universal access to high speed broadband for education, health, business and telecommuting. A formal third reading vote is set for Wednesday.
The Senate bill differs in several aspects from the House version, which passed 145-1 in March. Most notably, while it supports Communications Union Districts (CUDs), the local government entities established to address the digital divide, it also makes room for small local telecom providers to benefit from the initiative — so long as they also support universal access.
The bill reduces funding to $100 million from the $150 million the House proposed, but the Senate made clear it would OK the difference if the effort can spend that much money that fast. The Senate version also proposes a slightly different governance structure.
It remains to be seen if a conference committee will be needed to compromise between the two versions. But given the broad support for fixing the state’s digital divide, supporters expect that accord will be reached by the end of the 2021 session.
What didn’t make the Senate version was a concept supported by Brock and Tom Evslin, who previously served as the state’s chief technology officer and its secretary of transportation, that would have used federal funds to subsidize wireless or low orbit satellite internet services — such as billionaire Elon Musk’s nascent Starlink service — while a fiberoptic network is being built out.
While Brock’s proposal didn’t make the final bill, he voted yes, as did the Bennington and Windham delegations.
“The pandemic has highlighted the absolute necessity of high-speed internet access,” Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, said. “We have seen too many students struggle with remote learning and too many seniors that can’t access telehealth. We can’t fix that instantly, but this bill demonstrates our firm commitment to expand access to high-speed internet for all. This is a very exciting opportunity.”
“This has been one of our top priorities for as long as I have served in this Legislature, and I think we may be close to finally getting it right,” added Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor.
But Gray, in a statement after the vote, said the short-term broadband needs Brock’s proposal addressed still need to be met.
“Vermonters in unserved communities cannot wait another 10 years, 5 years, or 3 years for broadband access,” Gray said in a statement. “My sincere hope is that any future funds coming to Vermont through the American Jobs Plan or other federal appropriations will be used to meet short-term affordable and accessible broadband needs of Vermonters through all reliable technological means available.”
While the Senate was addressing one legislative priority, the House was putting the final touches on another by concurring with the Senate’s version of H. 171, a bill bolstering financial aid for early child care and offering workers scholarships and loan repayment forgiveness.
The House, by voice vote, made one small amendment.
“[The Senate] asked for a report back on how funds were spent,” said Rep. Kelly Pajala, I-Windham-Bennington-Windsor. “We want to see the plan for spending ARPA funds acknowledging that some funds will have already been spent.” Pajala sits on the House Human Services Committee, which crafted the House version out of a bill initially co-sponsored by 95 House members.
In other Senate business, the body also concurred with changes the House made to S. 20, which restricts PFAS substances such as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances and other chemicals of concern from consumer products including firefighting foam, carpets and ski wax.
As Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, explained, the House version elaborated on the Senate’s take by approving allowances for firefighting foam containing PFOA in fuel storage facilities until 2024, to match federal regulations. The House also added three additional “chemicals of concern” at the recommendation of the state Department of Health.
PFAS chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not easily break down in the environment. They are suspected of causing cancer and other health problems, and their discovery in Bennington household wells has led to lawsuits and the construction of water lines to replace contaminated ground water sources.
The bill passed unanimously by voice vote, as it did in the House last week, and when it was first approved by the Senate.
“Being a part of a community negatively impacted by PFOA, keeping these substances out of our environment, out of our rivers, and out of our bodies is essential, “ Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said. “I greatly appreciate this next step.”