The Legislature gave first-round approval to a bill creating a new office that would be responsible for coordinating the expansion of high-speed internet across Nebraska under a new federal program.
The bill (LB683) to create the Nebraska Broadband Office, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist and prioritized by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, advanced to the second round of consideration on a 43-2 vote Friday afternoon.
If the bill passes two more rounds of voting and is signed into law, the Nebraska Broadband Office and its new director would be responsible for directing up to $400 million in Broadband Equity, Access and Development (BEAD) funds allocated for the state.
While the office would be located inside the Nebraska Department of Transportation, the director of broadband would be appointed by and answer to the governor, Geist said.
That individual would be responsible for working with the Public Service Commission, state senators on the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, and internet service providers seeking to connect unserved and underserved areas to broadband internet.
On Friday, a small group of senators renewed their concerns about moving the responsibility for managing BEAD funds from the Public Service Commission — a regulatory body with five elected members — to an office controlled by the executive branch.
Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who along with Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue voted against advancing the bill, said the statements of some in support of the bill sounded like “an attack and an assault on the Public Service Commission,” which will continue to manage several state and federal broadband programs moving forward.
Cavanaugh introduced a series of amendments to limit the powers the governor would have under the bill and ensure the office be subject to the Nebraska Open Meetings Act — something supporters said it would be — but each of her amendments was defeated on Thursday and Friday.
Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte, addressing Cavanaugh’s amendments Friday, said constituents in his western Nebraska legislative district had lost faith in the Public Service Commission to connect them to broadband internet in an expedited way.
“I’m tired of waiting on the PSC,” Jacobson said. “We’ve had new membership on the PSC, but the PSC has failed us, and it’s time for someone to take control of this, and the governor intends to do just that.”
Jacobson said he was in favor of removing roadblocks to build out high-speed internet to areas without it, but Cavanaugh said she thought it was prudent to ensure government oversight over the spending of millions and millions of dollars.
“We are giving massive amounts of money to the administration,” Cavanaugh said. “We should be responsible in how we do that and we should care about the potential for exploitation and weaknesses, and oversights in the process.”
Geist took issue with that characterization and said the Nebraska Broadband Office would be subject to existing open government laws, and through an amendment drafted by the committee, would be required to file an annual report with the Legislature about the office’s activities.
“To say this is not transparent is absurd,” said Geist, the chair of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. “It’s the same way we treat every other agency, agency director and government. … It is so incredibly clear that this is covered by the (open) meetings act, so quit calling it not transparent, corrupt, irresponsible, and that there is no oversight. There obviously is.”
Several senators, led by Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, also took time to speak during debate on LB683 as part of a weekslong filibuster over another bill — LB574 from Sen. Kathleen Kauth, also from Omaha, that would prohibit anyone under 19 from seeking gender-affirming care in Nebraska — which consumed several hours Friday, which had been deemed a Trans Day of Visibility.
But shortly after noon, Geist introduced a motion to invoke cloture. It received 43 votes, well over the 33-vote threshold to shut off debate.
Geist said she planned to push her bill forward without any substantive changes, but said she would entertain an amendment to clear up the process for internet companies to file appeals on project proposals.
While the Public Service Commission has its own procedure for those appeals to play out, those issues would be decided by the Lancaster County District Court under LB683.
Several senators said they wanted to ensure those appeals could be considered and ruled on in a timely manner, and indicated they may draft an amendment before the bill comes back for a second round of floor debate.