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While campaigning in rural Texas, Beto O’Rourke accuses Governor Greg Abbott of suppressing efforts to improve broadband Internet access there, even after Abbott prioritized the issue in the regular legislative session earlier this year.
O’Rourke, a Democrat who announced in November that he was running for governor, began criticizing the Republican governor for vetoing a bill in June that would have helped replenish the Universal Service Fund, which supports telecommunications and Internet services for more than a million rural residents. Texas families. Abbott argued that the bill “would have imposed new duties on millions of Texans.”
Bipartisan supporters of the legislation say it is badly needed to help boost revenue for the fund, which relies on an extra cost on in-state voice calls and has been bleeding money for years. The lower the fund’s revenue, the less money it has to repay the service providers, which makes the service more difficult and costly to maintain in remote areas of the state.
“It’s another example of how Greg Abbott is causing inflation, especially for rural Texas communities that are already struggling with soaring prescription drug prices, and soaring gasoline prices,” O’Rourke said while campaigning last week in Lubbock. “Greg Abbott is really hurting these rural communities.”
Tuesday, O’Rourke Published an editorial About the issue, saying that it is “part of a broader trend of state leaders turning their backs on rural communities.”
Abbott’s campaign responded to O’Rourke by touting the progress made in expanding broadband access after the governor made it an emergency clause at the start of the regular session. Abbott spokeswoman Renee Ize said in a statement that the governor “signed 6 broadband reform bills, including allocating more than $500 million, to significantly expand broadband access throughout Texas, especially in rural areas.” .
The main piece of legislation passed was House Bill 5, which established a government broadband office to identify areas of need and coordinate funding for them.
But the bills that Abbott defended are a separate issue from the Universal Service Fund, according to industry experts and the Republican author of the bill that Abbott opposed.
“While [House Bill 5] said Mark Sell, CEO of the Texas Telephone Association.
Sale said funding from House Bill 5 could support upgrades or expansions, but the Universal Service Fund maintains the existing telecommunications infrastructure.
Texas has long maintained a universal service fund to support network phone service in rural areas where it is difficult to provide. To do so, it charges a 3.3% fee, or tax, on in-state voice calls, landlines and cellular, which providers pay and then pass on to consumers. However, the fund has depleted as Texas makes fewer voice calls and wireless companies change their billing methods, charging more for data and away from voice. That has resulted in an estimated $10 million shortfall in the fund per month as of last January, according to providers.
While the box does not directly support broadband, the Internet often runs on the same phone service network.
The bill that Abbott contested sought to modernize the fund by redefining a “high-cost rural area,” a definition that proponents say is outdated and covers places that are no longer rural. The bill would also have extended the fee to VoIP – calls made over the Internet via programs like Skype or FaceTime. Sale said VOIP calls make up less than 10% of all calls in Texas, but that the application of fees to them would signal progress in generating more revenue for the fund.
Abbott rejected the latter part, saying in his letter with his veto that the “only meaningful change” would have been “increasing the number of people paying the fee.”
“I think the veto was unfortunate because it provided another opportunity for the Universal Service Fund to catch up, which is certainly a very important issue in rural Texas,” said the bill’s author, Representative John Smithy, R-Amarillo. “But it’s not one of those situations that I think can’t be helped.”
Smithy and other rural lawmakers have asserted that the Public Utilities Commission has the ability to update the fund if it wants to, though it has so far refused to act. This is despite a 2020 recommendation by PUC staff to raise the surcharge.
Smith expressed hope that the Utilities Commission will reconsider the pleas of lawmakers now that it has secured new membership, as a result of the fallout from the power grid crisis in February.
PUC’s inaction is the target of a lawsuit brought by a group of Texas phone companies and cooperatives earlier this year. The state appeals court heard oral arguments in the case earlier this month.
Meanwhile, O’Rourke wants Abbott to take charge of his veto.
O’Rourke has long talked about making rural areas more connected to the rest of the state, but his focus on the bill that Abbott opposed is a more targeted message as he seeks to keep Abbott in a hot seat. In the early weeks of his nomination for governor, O’Rourke ran a campaign more focused on the incumbent than he did against U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in 2018.
The case also gives O’Rourke a new way to appeal to rural voters, who Texas Democrats say desperately need to improve to win statewide.
Politically, allowing the Universal Service Bill to become law would have opened Abbott to the attacks he was imposing on more Texans, a particularly dangerous charge in the Republican primaries. And sure enough, one of Abbott’s main competitors – former Dallas Senator Don Hoffins – has been an outspoken opponent of the Universal Service Fund.
The Huffines introduced a bill in 2017 that would have eliminated the USF tax over a five-year period.
“To be absolutely clear, Dallas residents and the communities around us are being taxed to provide hard-line phone service to rural Texans,” Havens wrote to voters at the time. “While everyone should probably have access to some kind of basic phone service, this tax and wealth redistribution is the wrong way!”
A spokesman for Havens’ campaign for governor said this remains his position at the fund.