Ahead of a Wednesday deadline, Montana lawmakers endorsed one bill and rejected another that aim to increase access to the internet.
The House of Representatives reversed course on House Bill 422 Tuesday and voted it down after giving it an initial vote of wide approval earlier this week.
The bill would have allowed local governments to operate their own broadband utilities and invest in broadband infrastructure. The goal was to allow for public/private partnerships to improve internet access and speed, especially in areas that aren’t served by major providers.
According to broadbandnow.com, Montana is ranked 50th in the country for broadband access.
Rep. Kelly Kortum, a Democrat from Bozeman, said he brought the bill to try to expand that access.
"Smaller towns will have additional options to diversify their economies and to strengthen their local hospitals, schools and main street businesses."
The morning before the House reversed its endorsement for the bill, some representatives received a flier in their mailboxes that outlined opposition to the bill, including that broadband infrastructure is expensive and could increase taxes. It’s unclear where the flier came from.
House Majority Leader Sue Vinton was one of the lawmakers who initially voted for the bill, and then against it on Tuesday. In an interview after, she said she hadn’t done enough research prior to voting, and realized later that overseeing a broadband utility is too big a lift for local governments.
"For many counties and cities, they just don’t have the manpower to get involved in another service."
Vinton said the flier did not sway her decision.
Democrats did get a win Tuesday with an almost unanimous endorsement of House Bill 494. Rep. Derek Harvey, a Democrat from Butte, is carrying the so-called “Dig Once” bill. It would have the state notify broadband companies when highways are under construction so that broadband infrastructure can be installed at the same time.
"Let’s get that internet out to our rural schools and businesses and help our economy grow," Democratic Rep. Derek Harvey said.
The House passed the bill just in time to send it to the Senate for consideration before the Wednesday deadline for lawmakers to transmit bills from one chamber to the other.