Most of the changes made Tuesday night to the governor’s broadband financing bill — including a section that would have eventually put the V.I. Water and Power Authority at the helm of the government’s multimillion-dollar broadband project — became moot Wednesday after senators passed an amendment to take them out.
The financing bill made its debut during a full session in March but was sent back to committee after senators said they were "uncomfortable" with some of the sections — namely, the need to float $42.5 million in bonds to help cover the local match for the project, along the structure of the entity, called the V.I. Next Generation Network (viNGN), set up to oversee the build-out of the network and its operations once it’s up and running.
Amendments were added during a committee meeting last week, and the bill was forwarded onto Rules, where senators on Tuesday looked to phase management of the broadband project from viNGN to WAPA, since, according to the sponsors, the utility is already providing $15 million of in-kind services by donating conduit space.
While there was no explanation given during Wednesday’s full session on St. Thomas about why the section was being removed, members of the governor’s financial team have explained that the nearly $70 million in federal economic stimulus funding the government has received for the project hinged on moving forward with the business plan and administrative structure detailed in the original grant applications.
Any substantial changes and the money could be lost, which would in essence have gutted the project, officials have said. In his committee hearing last week, Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone made similar remarks, saying that he had spoken with federal officials, who said any changes to the federal grant application had to be made before the deadline in Sept. 2010.
Senate President Ronald E. Russell, who sponsored the amendment passed Tuesday night that would have broadened WAPA’s role, said he felt the removal of the language — which was included in an amendment introduced Wednesday by Sen. Louis P. Hill — was a "slap in the face" that showed the majority caucus was "being inconsistent."
Keeping WAPA in the picture would not have jeopardized the project’s funding, since the transition over from viNGN was gradual, and initially hinged on a joint partnership between viNGN and the utility, Russell said after Wednesday’s session.
Another section reprogramming $300,000 from the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund to promote the St. Croix Jazz and Country Music Festival, was also cut from the bill Wednesday, which Sen. Usie R. Richards explained would keep the governor from line-item vetoing the sections of the bill he doesn’t like when it’s sent to his desk to be signed.
According to law, the governor can line-item veto sections in any bill containing two or more appropriations. And, while it was decided Wednesday to trim the reprogramming, another section added Tuesday night by Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe appropriated $50,000 in 2014 from any dividends issued to the Public Finance Authority — the parent company of viNGN — for territorial scholarships to study telecommunications technology was kept.
Other amendments added during last week’s meeting of the Economic Development, Technology and Agriculture Committee: lowered the government’s bonding authorization from $42.5 million to $38 million; mandates the PFA to submit a detailed financial report on the network’s operations every two years, beginning Oct. 1, 2012, along with quarterly information on program income for each grant, a report on all dividends issued by viNGN and a breakdown of goals and actual accomplishments, among other things.
Other amendments that have been added to the bill as it passed through the Senate:
-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 sale of WAPA, or any part of WAPA, and the transfer of 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.
Senators have said the various amendments are meant to give the Legislature more oversight and local providers more of a voice in the project.
A statement from Government House was sent out soon after the bill passed, with Gov. John deJongh Jr. saying," I am pleased to see that the Legislature understood fully how important it was to act favorably on this measure and authorize my administration to move forward with a project that will benefit the entire community. The completion of the middle mile in our territory’s broadband infrastructure will benefit all."
DeJongh added that he would be waiting for the final version of the bill to get to his desk before he comments on the amendments added over the past few weeks.
"Once my staff and I have had the opportunity to review the effect of the amendments, I will be in a better position to discuss next steps for this legislation," the governor said.
Voting in favor of the bill during Wednesday’s full session were Dowe and Hill, along with Sens. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Malone, Richards, Russell, Sammuel Sanes, Celestino A. White Sr., Alvin Williams and Janette Millin-Young.
Sens. Neville James, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly voted against the bill, citing various ongoing concerns, while Sens. Craig W. Barshinger and Patrick Simeon Sprauve were absent.