/Broadband bill becomes law at lightning speed, but questions persist about transparency at electric co-ops

Broadband bill becomes law at lightning speed, but questions persist about transparency at electric co-ops

Wednesday morning saw Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act into law. The efficiency and cooperation that was displayed in moving the legislation through the process quickly – it was the first bill to reach his desk during this session – were praised by the Republican governor. Republican Lt. Governor said, “I think we’re all excited about this opportunity for rural Mississippi.” Tate Reeves. Brandon Presley, a Nettleton Democrat, was the Northern District Public Service Commissioner and led the effort to get the bill passed. He said he believes cooperatives will bring high-speed internet to rural Mississippi, just like cooperatives played a significant role in bringing electricity in rural areas during the 1930s and 1940s. Presley said, “This is electricity of the 21st century,” after signing the bill. He added that children shouldn’t “have to sit in a McDonald’s parking lot doing their homework.” According to testimony at the earlier hearings on the bill, it took 28 years for all of rural Mississippi to get electricity. Robert Johnson (D-Natchez), hopes that it won’t take so long to bring internet access to rural Mississippi. He said that broadband is similar to public education. Johnson stated that he voted in favor of the bill to allow rural cooperatives internet access because it was the “only effort” the Legislature had made to address the problem. He said that only four to five cooperatives had indicated they were ready to offer high-speed internet to their members. He suggested that the state invest in high-speed internet infrastructure, such as by issuing bonds to repay debt. He stated that Kentucky and Tennessee have already made such investments. He said that the state is so important in attracting workers and offering quality education opportunities. Johnson voted in favor of the rural cooperatives bill. However, Johnson is part of a group that is suing seven cooperatives. They claim the nonprofits aren’t returning excess revenue to customers (members) as required by federal and state laws. Johnson stated that although a majority of cooperative members are women and minorities, Johnson found out that less than 5% of the board members are women and minorities while working on the lawsuit. Johnson stated that Johnson was told by one man that he was the youngest board member when he was first elected thirty years ago. He is still the case today. Johnson amended the bill to make it more public so that board elections are better advertised. Johnson stated that this would improve the representation on boards. “Our boards have made great progress in trying to address diversity issues, but there is still some work to be done,” Michael Callahan (chief executive officer of Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi), said earlier in response to Mississippi Today’s questions. Callahan stated that all cooperatives return profits (called capital credit) to members and are reducing debt. He said that cooperatives are transparent. Callahan stated that members can attend board meetings as per law. However, they must not disrupt the proceedings. The public can view the financial statements of the co-op and members can also review the audited financial statements. This refers to tax documents that nonprofits file with IRS. Half of the state’s electricity comes from rural electric cooperatives. Callahan encouraged members of the cooperatives to be patient during Wednesday’s bill signing. He said that it would take some time for the process to start. He said that all cooperatives have done or will conduct feasibility studies to determine if high-speed internet is feasible. He said that cooperatives must remember their primary mission, which is to provide electricity for the residents of their service areas. Callahan stated that the cooperatives would meet almost immediately after the bill signing in order to discuss the possibility of receiving federal funds to aid with their efforts. Multiple studies show Mississippi ranks near the bottom for broadband access. According to the Federal Communications Commission, Mississippi ranks last for broadband access. 72 percent of Mississippi’s population has access to upload speeds of 3 Mbps and download speeds of 25 mbps. Presley stated that speeds are not fast enough to do some activities like telemedicine._x000D