With a full Senate session scheduled for next week, the government’s broadband financing bill was the last item on the Friday agenda — a sign that it may soon be heading to the governor’s desk for final approval.
After debuting during last month’s full session, senators decided to send the bill back to the Economic Development, Technology and Agriculture Committee for further consideration. While the bill failed to pass muster during a committee meeting last week, it did push through after just a couple rounds of questioning Friday, and after senators had tacked on a series of amendments that allows them to play more of a role in the process.
The government has pulled in nearly $70 million in federal economic stimulus grant funding to pay for the various components of the territory-wide broadband project, and the bill authorizes the issuance of up to $42.5 million in gross receipts tax bonds to cover the required local match.
According to members of the governor’s financial team, the plan is to go after $32.2 in short-term financing to be repaid through the longer-term bond issue, which hinges on the completion of the government’s audited financials for fiscal year 2009, the first full year after the global economic collapse. Financial team head Nathan Simmonds has said the government hopes to float $38.2 million in bonds but explained that the extra wiggle room in the authorization allows for the possibility of unfavorable conditions on the bond market.
But senators’ concerns over whether the government can afford to pay for another bond issue kept the price down, as they passed an amendment Friday for a $38 million authorization, which comes with stringent reporting requirements, such as mandating the Public Finance Authority to submit a detailed financial report on the network’s operations every two years, beginning Oct. 1, 2012.
If the bill as amended is signed into law by the governor, the PFA would also be required to submit to the Economic Development, Technology and Agriculture Committee quarterly information on program income for each grant; all dividends issued by the V.I. Next Generation Network (or viNGN, a subsidiary of the PFA set up to oversee the build out and operations of the network); and a breakdown of goals and actual accomplishments, among other things.
Concerns about the structure and composition of viNGN’s board also prompted senators to include sections limiting each member’s compensation, along with a requirement that any dividends paid by the agency to the PFA may only be spent as appropriated by the Legislature.
Other sections mandate participation of local Internet service providers and other small companies, whose representatives recently testified that they did not want to be bypassed and taken out of business if the government decided to sell its bandwidth to anyone other than the wholesalers.
Other amendments approved Friday:
- ban viNGN from selling, transferring or encumbering property from the government or one of its semi-autonomous or autonomous agencies without legislative approval;
- prohibit the V.I. Water and Power Authority — which has contributed approximately $15 million worth of in-kind services included in the local match — from selling WAPA, or any part of WAPA, and from transferring any tenured employee or their benefits; and
- require the government to offer free WiFi at its public computer centers, which are being built across the territory in conjunction with the project.
Voting for the amended bill were Sens. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Louis P. Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, Patrick Simeon Sprauve and Janette Millin-Young.
Sens. Neville James and Terrence "Positive" Nelson voted against the bill, which now goes onto the Senate’s Rules and Judiciary Committee for further consideration before being sent onto the full body. Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe and Ronald E. Russell were also present during Friday’s meeting.