House passes amended Broadband Expansion Act

Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, speaks on behalf of the Broadband Expansion Act of 2019 on Monday. (Photo Courtesy of WV Legislative Photography)

CHARLESTON — The House speaker’s signature broadband expansion legislation passed the House of Delegates Monday by a wide margin after amendments were added.

House Bill 2005, the Broadband Expansion Act of 2019, passed the House 97-2 and now heads to the state Senate.

“No matter what name you call the internet, it just needs to work like a utility and without a second thought,” said Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell.

The Broadband Expansion Act would tax communications tower construction at salvage value for expansion of wireless and broadband internet, require electric companies to study the use of their power poles for broadband expansion, and give internet companies the ability to use state rights of way for expanding next-generation broadband and wireless internet technologies.

“This bill is greater than the sum of its parts,” Linville said during a floor speech Monday. “We have a bill that has the potential to change the way West Virginia operates, to change the way West Virginia educates its children, to change the way West Virginia does business.”

Two of the three amendments dealt with the possible constitutional issues raised by House Democrats during the bill’s committee votes over the last two weeks.

An amendment from Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, would switch how communication tower construction is taxed in the bill. Instead of taxing the towers at salvage value, tower construction would receive a corporate net income tax credit covering as much as 80 percent of the ad valorem property tax paid on the towers constructed in underserved areas of the state between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2024. The amendment failed by voice vote.

Fleischauer had previously raised possible constitutional issues regarding the salvage value provision during the House Judiciary Committee meeting on Jan 21. Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, also raised concerns over the salvage value when HB 2005 was before the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee on Jan. 17.

“I am very much in favor of the broadband bill, but one of the things we do when we enter the legislature is we take an oath to uphold the constitution,” Fleischauer said. ”

An amendment from Delegates John Shott, R-Mercer, and Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, added a provision protecting the rest of the legislation should a future court case rule that any provision of the Broadband Expansion Act is unconstitutional. The other two amendments made technical changes to the title and to the bill itself.

While the bill enjoyed wide bipartisan support, there was some concern raised over whether the bill would truly encourage broadband expansions in rural parts of the state.

“I think this is certainly the best opportunity we’ve had for a long time to move internet and broadband services and true high-speed forward,” said Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton. “But at the end of the day, if all we — yet again — come out with with this bill is providing a third, fourth and fifth option for people in large municipalities and we’ve done nothing for the people in rural areas and the people in last-mile…then we’re going to continue to see a hemorrhaging of population out of West Virginia to other places.”

In a statement, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said the Broadband Expansion Act would help West Virginia take full advantage of the 21st century economy.

“Just like the interstate highway system unleashed commerce in the 20th century, broadband and high-speed wireless technologies now have the ability to unleash our state’s potential and connect West Virginians to the world like never before,” Hanshaw said.