Douglas presses Legislature on broadband plan

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas is pressing the Legislature to act this year on his plan to extend broadband Internet and wireless phone service.

But lawmakers have a lot of work to do on the bill, and they may not meet the governor’s deadline.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Friday is the deadline for when major bills are supposed to clear one chamber and move to the other.

But the bill creating a new Telecommunications Authority is still very much a work in progress.

For example, should some of the authority’s work be exempt from open meeting and public records laws? Can the authority pre-empt local zoning as it tries to build telecommunications towers? And how many members should be on the new authority’s board?

These are just some of the questions still being hashed out in the House Commerce Committee.

Warren Kitzmiller, a Montpelier Democrat, is the committee’s chairman.

(Kitzmiller) “I’m very much hoping to have this bill wrapped up and finished by the end of Friday. At this point, I can’t guarantee that we’re going to make it. But as a committee, we’re going to try very hard.”

(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas has put the new Telecommunications Authority on his must-pass list for the year. The authority is part of his initiative to extend broadband Internet and wireless phone coverage statewide by 2010.

Under the governor’s plan, the Authority would step in to pay for the needed infrastructure – towers for wireless services, for example.

Douglas has been impatient with the progress to date. He tried to prod the legislature during a recent news conference.

(Douglas) “We really need to pass that bill this year. I sensed a lot of enthusiasm on the part of many legislators at the beginning of the session. I don’t understand why things aren’t moving along more quickly.”

(Dillon) The Senate Economic Development Committee hasn’t yet debated the bill. But Chairman Vince Illuzzi says he wants to proceed with caution.

(Illuzzi) “We’ll try to get the bill out this session, but I can’t make any guarantees. You know, it’s one thing to issue a broad policy statement saying, I want this bill.’ and then say, you guys work out the details but make sure you’re done by the end of the session.’ I’m not sure we can deliver that quickly.”

(Dillon) Illuzzi has basic questions about the authority’s mission.

(Illuzzi) “I want to make sure that the authority that is set up is closely grounded to people out there with needs. I don’t want it to become a financial or lending authority for large corporations that like to go where the population is, and not to the rural areas where the return on investment is not as great.”

(Dillon) Illuzzi says lawmakers are ready to include $500-thiousand dollars in next year’s budget for the authority to begin its work.

But the Douglas Administration wants more than the money. Officials say they need the full legislation this year in order to meet the 2010 goal for full broadband coverage.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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