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Alabama senator says he will ‘go to war’ over municipal broadband bill

By   /   April 4, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Alabama state Sen. Tom Whatley recently described his legislation to allow municipal broadband expansion as a “go-to-war bill to me.”

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WHATLEY: Said telecom lobbyists are pushing back against his municipal broadband expansion bill and that he will “go to war” over the legislation.

The Auburn Republican introduced SB 151 this session, which would let city broadband networks expand, but only within their home counties. Whatley, whose district includes Opelika, whose city utility, Opelika Power Services, is looking to grow, has twice before tried to get similar legislation through the Alabama Legislature. His bills remained stuck in committee both times.

His 2017 bill requires that no public funds can be used to directly finance the expansion of a public provider; instead, “only revenue bonds, cash, grants, loans, or matching dollars may be used as a source of financing.”

The legislation also would require public providers to “give a 12-month notice of the intent of the public provider to serve an area so that any private provider currently serving the area may determine if it will serve the area with the same level or capacity of service to be provided by the public provider.” The vague nature of the language concerns critics, however.

RELATED: Alabama bills would let municipal networks expand, offer tax credits to providers

Whatley told the Opelika-Auburn News that while he filed other bills that would have allowed intercounty expansion for municipal broadband, he is focused on SB 151 due to the pushback he has received.

“A lot of people are against that bill,” Whatley told the outlet. “AT&T has hired 26 lobbyists to work against me on that bill. It really aggravates me because I have boiled one bill down to where it only allows Opelika to go into Lee County. It cuts out the other counties.”

Whatley’s bill, introduced Feb. 9, has been read once and referred to the Senate Committee on Transportation and Energy.

A pro-rural broadband growth bill with a better shot at passage is Sen. Clay Scofield’s SB 23, which focuses on incentives to private providers and of which Whatley is one of 18 co-sponsors. The legislation would amend the Alabama Renewal Act to provide an income tax credit equal to 10 percent of the investment in new, qualified broadband telecom network facilities and a 10-year property tax exemption on those facilities. The bill also provides an exemption from sales and use tax for equipment and materials used to operate those facilities.

That bill is pending a third reading in the Senate Committee on Transportation and Energy. The Legislature reconvened Tuesday following its annual spring break.

Gov. Robert Bentley has been a proponent of broadband expansion, forming the Office of Broadband Development in 2015, and would likely sign pro-expansion legislation that reached his desk.

RELATED: Alabama governor lays plans for broadband expansion

But Bentley faces possible impeachment over allegations he misused state resources to aid an improper relationship with his political adviser, Rebekah Mason. Twenty-three members of the House signed an impeachment resolution against the governor last April that accused Bentley of corruption in office and willful neglect of duty.

The Alabama Ethics Commission will likely issue results of its investigation into Bentley’s conduct at its meeting on Wednesday. It could turn the issue over to state prosecutors if it finds Bentley broke the law.

Such findings would also give ammunition to lawmakers seeking to oust the governor. The special counsel that is overseeing the impeachment investigation plans to issue its report to the House Judiciary Committee on Friday. Committee hearings will follow, and Bentley will be allowed to respond. A report will then be sent to the full House on May 4.

Bill Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, told Watchdog.org he doesn’t expect the process to impact Bentley’s ability to sign bills in 2017. He said the governor would be given due process and afforded the ability to present his side. Besides, the gears of governance tend to grind at a leisurely pace.

“Things move pretty slowly in Montgomery,” Stewart said.

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Johnny Kampis is National Watchdog Reporter for Watchdog.org. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com, FoxNews.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A former semi-professional poker player, he is writing a book documenting the poker scene at the 2016 World Series of Poker, a decade after the peak of the poker boom. Johnny is also a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors.