CHARLESTON — By a narrow vote and over the objections of the lead sponsor of the bill, the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee voted Monday to send a bill that would provide oversight to a new state agency and accountability for internet service providers to a subcommittee.
The committee voted 9-8 Monday afternoon to send House Bill 4001, creating the Legislative Oversight Commission on Department of Economic Development Accountability, to a subcommittee for further review.
Members of the committee were briefed by counsel on a committee amendment to HB 4001, making technical changes to the bill, including additional input from stakeholders for confidentiality agreements for utility rights of way and easements, and for certain documents that would be required to be submitted to the new oversight commission.
House Tech Committee Chairman Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, said his intentions for the committee were to approve the committee amendment to HB 4001 and table the bill until next week to allow additional time for members and interested parties to review the bill.
House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, moved for the creation of a subcommittee to bring all interested parties to the table after hearing from representatives of FirstEnergy, the Cable Telecommunications Association of West Virginia, and the state Department of Transportation, who had not had time to review the committee amendment.
Committee members had also asked to hear from representatives from the Department of Economic Development and the Attorney General’s Office, but no representatives were present for the meeting. Espinosa said moving HB 4001 to a subcommittee would help provide more transparency to the public as the bill is crafted.
“I think the fact that some folks are not here illustrates that without having been able to see the bill, I think some folks might not realize they should be here to speak on behalf of this bill,” Espinosa said. “I do think it’s a pretty significant piece of legislation.”
Linville, the lead sponsor of HB 4001, opposed the motion. He said with tabling the bill for one week, there would already be time for review of the bill and for any concerned party to reach out with their concerns.
“This bill has been reviewed and there’s been opportunity to review for one week,” Linville said. “There was going to be another week’s opportunity for review as was mentioned earlier. I think there is significant support from our constituents to see this continued and moved forward. Under questions from many on the committee, we heard from several of the folks who raised concerns and were met. There was going to be continual time for review over the coming week.
The bill creates a new commission to provide oversight for all financial investments made by the Department of Economic Development, the new state agency created last year. The Department is the lead agency for the influx of millions of federal dollars for high-speed broadband expansion, as well as millions of state tax dollars for certain economic development investments, such as the proposed Nucor steel mill in Mason County.
The second half of HB 4001 would create a number of funds to invest dollars for various broadband programs, such as middle mile broadband expansions, pole replacement and relocation, conduit installation and right of way mapping, as well as additional consumer protections.
The bill also includes a requirement for telecommunications companies that offer internet service to apply for “eligible telecommunications carriers status” with the Public Service Commission to show that the companies are in compliance with the FCC’s Universal Service Fund.
The bill empowers the state Office of Broadband to check with the FCC to determine any specific commitments and obligations made by companies regarding broadband and require companies to meet those obligations. The bill empowers the PSC to fine any company that misrepresents their compliance once a hearing is conducted. Companies would also be ineligible for future state grants, something Linville has described as a “provider death penalty.”
Linville appointed committee Vice Chairman Zach Maynard, R-Lincoln, to chair the subcommittee. Espinosa and Del. Riley Keaton, R-Roane, were appointed to the subcommittee as majority members, while delegates Joseph Garcia, D-Marion, and Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, were appointed as minority members.