Connecting state and local government leaders
About a quarter of New Mexico students don't have home internet access. Legislators are proposing to create a division in the state's IT department to help address this and other digital equity issues.
Lawmakers in New Mexico are considering a proposal to expand high-speed internet access throughout the state by creating a new broadband office, a change proponents say is necessary as thousands of students continue to attend school remotely.
Forming the office would be a significant move for the state. New Mexico currently has no single entity that tracks investments or coordinates activities related to broadband between government agencies despite several recommendations that one be established.
Meanwhile, roughly a quarter of the state’s K-12 students lack internet service at home, according to data from the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority. A year into the pandemic, many of those students are still struggling to connect to virtual classrooms, Rep. Susan Herrera, a Democrat and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said Tuesday.
“We watched the collapse of our educational system during covid and during the shutdown,” Herrera said during a hearing of the House Committee on Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements. “And we all were watching our kids and our grandkids, dealing with this problem.”
The Connect New Mexico Act, co-sponsored by six House Democrats, would allocate $950,000 from the state’s general fund to create a division of broadband within the state’s Department of Information Technology. The division would be charged with helping “local governments, public education institutions and state agencies” procure broadband, as well as administering an existing $19 million fund to match federal broadband grants.
“Most of the money that comes in for broadband is through federal grants. That’s just how this works,” said Rep. Natalie Figueroa, a Democrat from Albuquerque and another of the bill’s co-sponsors. “So what we needed was a pool of money, and a staff to really get those grants in and to provide the match.”
The department would also be required to define and implement “quality service standards” for broadband, maintain coverage maps, help create uniform permitting and licensing requirements, and publish an annual report about the quality and availability of broadband service across the state.
New Mexico does have an existing broadband division, described in the bill’s fiscal analysis as a “small, informal office” with three full-time employees. “However, neither the office nor (the Department of Information Technology) has the mission or resources to perform as an effective, centralized broadband lead entity,” it says.
A Legislative Finance Committee report in 2019 recommended the legislature consider “designating in statute” a single entity to lead broadband initiatives in the state, and a state legislative report last summer urged centralization of broadband oversight.
The $950,000 appropriation would be an annual cost, most of which would fund the existing three employees as well as two new positions, including a GIS manager. If the bill passes, the state would likely also be eligible for an additional $1.5 million in federal coronavirus relief funding that’s earmarked specifically for broadband expansion, according to the fiscal analysis.
The committee approved the legislation on an 8-1 vote, with Republican Rep. Jason Harper dissenting. Harper said the proposal was not a “prudent use of our limited tax dollars” because “more than half of us will get internet by satellite” in the near future.
The bill moves next to the House Appropriations Committee.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.