Broadband Gets A Partial Boost In Wisconsin

Jun 7, 2019

The state Legislature's budget committee has recommended shrinking the size of a proposed expansion of higher-speed internet service across Wisconsin. The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee also wants to block additional money to help a consumer group challenge residential rate cases brought by state utilities.

Both items were considered Thursday night, as part of  the state budget proposal for the Public Service Commission (PSC). 

On broadband, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has proposed spending about $75 million over the next two years to bring faster internet service to more parts of the state. About $50 million would come from Wisconsin funds, the rest from the federal government. Most of the areas without broadband are in central and northern Wisconsin. But pockets of southern Wisconsin don't have broadband either. 

State Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, argues in favor of the governor's proposal. He says his constituents want to help everyone in Wisconsin.

"We understand, even though it doesn't apply to us, that our rural neighbors need access to the internet. We understand that as technology evolves and the world changes, that if you aren't connected to the internet, you're going to get left behind," Goyke said.

But Rep. Mark Born, R- Beaver Dam, told Goyke that he and other Milwaukee residents would also benefit from better internet service up north.

"I mean, the way you made it sound, with Milwaukee taxpayers having to pay for other places, it sounded like they never left Milwaukee. And I know that's not true, because you told us a couple weeks ago about a wonderful trip that you and your wife had around the state, and I'm assuming you tried to access your phone, technology, broadband — things like that," Born said.

But the governor's proposal failed on a party line vote, with Republicans voting against. Instead, the committee voted 12-4 to transfer about $44 million in federal money to the broadband grants program, only about 60% of the overall amount that Evers wanted. 

Also under the Public Service Commission budget, the governor had wanted about a $200,000 increase in grants for nonprofits like the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) to intervene in residential utility rate cases. Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, told Joint Finance members that groups like CUB help consumers take on well-prepared power companies. 

"Maybe some of you have it in your heart to stand up for the ratepayers,“ Taylor said.

But the GOP, without comment, blocked the additional funds for CUB by a vote of 12-4.

CUB Executive Director Tom Content, in a written statement, said, “It’s disappointing that lawmakers opted not to support the advocate working on behalf of utility customers across the state, at a time when our electric rates in Wisconsin are second highest in the Midwest.”

Joint Finance did OK a $100,000 increase in the overall Intervenor Compensation Fund, which aids organizations and individuals that become involved in PSC proceedings. 

The group Clean Wisconsin also criticized the committee for refusing to use about $10 million from a national air pollution settlement against Volkswagen to fund more electric vehicle charging stations in Wisconsin. A separate Republican bill, not completely supported by renewable energy groups, would also use settlement funds for charging stations. It's unclear if that measure will pass this summer.

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