Wisconsin Republicans plan $125 million for broadband expansion

MADISON — Republicans are writing the next state budget to spend $125 million on expanding broadband access, about $75 million less than Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed.

Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said the GOP plan uses ties instead of tax revenues to meet federal pandemic relief requirements, which require state officials to pay 35% of state spending on schools to spend.

To fund the plan, state officials would use the borrowed money to provide grants approved by the Public Service Commission.

TIED TOGETHER: Republicans are providing $128 million in new funding for schools, less than a tenth of what Governor Tony Evers wanted

The Republican plan is about $75 million below what Evers proposed in his two-year spending plan in early 2021, which the Democratic governor dubbed “The Year of Broadband.” He proposed spending about $200 million, five times the amount included in the 2013, 2015, and 2017 budgets combined.

Broadband, as defined by the Federal Communications Commission, is a minimum internet speed of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits for uploads—enough for streaming Netflix or taking an online class.

Expanding access is one of the few spending priorities that Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin have in common. According to a state estimate, approximately 430,000 rural Wisconsinites do not have broadband access, which is nearly 25% of the rural population.

Numerous sparsely populated communities remain stuck with Internet speeds that lag cities by more than a decade, if they have access at all.

The funds from the state budget are accompanied by $100 million in federal funds, which Evers says it will use to expand broadband access.

Democrats on the committee said the 20-year lifespan doesn’t make sense for technology that’s likely to be obsolete by the time the state pays back the loans.

The bipartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated $35 million in interest would have to be paid by the state for the borrowing.

TIED TOGETHER: In Kentucky’s Silicon Holler and Wisconsin’s Northwoods, high-speed Internet is creating jobs and changing lives

No new means to improve birth outcomes

The Finance Committee also voted bipartisanly on a $3.5 billion spending plan for health services and insurance that would provide $252 million for nursing homes through a mix of state and federal revenues.

“We’re hearing from people and taking steps to really make sure our vulnerable are cared for,” said Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma. “Sometimes Republicans get hit that we don’t care. We take care. We have the funding to do something today and we are doing it.”

But Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, blasted the proposal because it didn’t provide funding, as Evers demanded, to improve birth outcomes for people of color.

“From where I sit, the most vulnerable people — our infants, our babies of color — have absolutely nothing,” Johnson said.

In 2017, the most recent year for which data was released by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 15 black infants died for every 1,000 live births. That’s more than double the state’s average infant mortality rate and three times that of white infants. Black babies were also more likely to be born prematurely or with a low birth weight.

WISCONSIN HOUSEHOLD: Governor Tony Evers’ proposed state budget: what’s in it?

Black women in Wisconsin are also five times more likely than white women to die during or within a year of pregnancy, according to the April 2018 state review of maternal mortality.

Researchers are increasingly saying that it is not individual behavior but structural inequality that is driving these findings. Despite years of work by Black women-led organizations, the differences persist — and in some cases, grow.

Evers proposed Medicaid insurance for doulas, trained professionals who assist families with childbirth and work with birthing parents to ensure their needs are met in the doctor’s office, during labor, and after the baby is born. A doula has been shown to improve the health of both mother and child.

The budget would also direct grants to community organizations working to improve black women’s health, including groups led by black women.

Evers also proposed expanding Medicaid coverage after childbirth from 60 days to 12 months so birthing parents could keep their health coverage during the time when they are most at risk from medical complications and conditions, such as postpartum depression.

Republicans instead voted to extend coverage to 90 days.

Madeline Heim of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin and Rick Barrett of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

Contact Molly Beck at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @ MollyBeck.

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