State official: Governor could use federal funds to cover broadband expansion shortfall

By: - April 20, 2021 3:36 pm

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds could look to federal aid to help top off funding for her broadband expansion proposal. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Workforce Development)

Gov. Kim Reynolds most likely would cover any shortage in state funding for her broadband expansion proposal with federal aid, if the rules allow it, a state official said Tuesday. 

Annette Dunn, the state’s chief information officer, told a gathering arranged by the Greater Des Moines Partnership that state lawmakers have discussed budgeting $100 million of the $150 million Reynolds requested for next fiscal year. Reynolds’ full proposal called for a three-year, $450 million project to extend high-speed broadband service across the state. 

“The biggest challenge that we are going to face is resources,” Dunn said. “We all know that the legislative body and Gov. Reynolds are really proposing significant amounts of funding toward this, which is definitely needed.”

But lawmakers appear unlikely to provide the $150 million a year Reynolds requested for the work.

Dunn said the federal government’s investment in infrastructure includes paying for “time” — a reference to workers’ hours — as well as equipment.

“Our stance on this is for the state government to go ahead and allocate what they’re going to allocate, hoping to get that out as soon as possible to Iowans because it does go through a long process,” she said. 

Dunn said it can take 60 to 90 days to get the rules for federal aid such as the latest pandemic stimulus bill and President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which Congress is still considering. Earlier this year, the state awarded $15.5 million in grants for broadband programs using money from the federal CARES Act pandemic relief bill.

Dunn said the state can’t wait the 36 years it took for electrical service to span the state in the early 20th century. “There’s no way we can do that. We have to have these resources, the time, the money and really make a huge effort towards proliferating this very quickly,” Dunn said. 

Last year, state and federal auditors informed Reynolds she had inappropriately used $21 million from a previous federal stimulus package, the CARES Act, to pay for a no-bid contract with a software company. Reynolds disagreed, but shifted the money back into a general pandemic-related account as lawmakers moved to approve an appropriation for the software.

Laura Smith, chief information officer and senior vice president at UnityPoint Health, said offering virtual health care will be even more important as broadband access spreads. “I really don’t see that changing,” Smith said. “If anything, it’s going to be even more necessary and will be even more critical to our operations.”

Without widespread broadband access, Smith said, health care can’t be offered evenly among various socioeconomic groups. “That digital divide absolutely contributes to health inequity. So really the greatest opportunity here is if we are able to close or narrow that digital divide, we’re able to create some opportunities as it relates to health equity.”

Technology Association of Iowa President Brian Waller said the state needs to take care to “future-proof” any broadband work. “Technology works at such a rapid pace,” Waller said. “How we keep up with that investment for the long haul, I would think that is a challenge.”

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.