State Senate approves bill to boost rural broadband

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Louisiana state senators on Thursday unanimously approved a measure meant to promote high-speed internet access in rural areas.

Senate Bill 406 by Sen. Beth Mizell, a Franklinton Republican, would let member-owned electricity cooperatives get into the internet business, but only in areas where broadband is not already available, which Mizell said is about 40 percent of the state. The co-ops could allow an affiliate to use its electricity infrastructure and issue debt on behalf of the affiliate.

Member-owned co-ops helped bring electricity to rural areas in the early 20th century, and Mizell hopes they can play a similar role bringing high-speed internet to places that don’t have enough residents to attract for-profit companies. The Federal Communications Commission has established the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to distribute $20.4 billion over 10 years to places with limited or no broadband access, and state officials hope to bring some of that money to Louisiana.

Mizell said utilities had wanted to be part of her legislation but lost interest when they realized the initiative was only for unserved rural areas.

“This is not a moneymaking deal,” Mizell said. “It just so happens that money is coming in that makes it appear to be a money-making deal.”

Though she didn’t call out any party by name, Mizell took a moment before the vote to say senators are “being tested every day on where our allegiance lies.”

“We have voices whispering in our ears here all day long,” she said. “But our people are back in our district, and they don’t have a lobbyist. They’re not paying anybody to speak for them [except] all of us.”

Other measures the state Senate voted to send to the House of Representatives Thursday include:

• Senate Bill 395 by Sen. Heather Cloud, a Turkey Creek Republican, seeks to stop attorneys from advertising that a client got a large award if the ad makes it seem the client got the entire amount when attorney fees, court costs or other expenses actually were deducted. Advertisements considered “false, misleading or deceptive” could lead to penalties under laws governing unfair trade practices and consumer protection.

Critics say over-thetop advertising by lawyers helps to create an overly litigious legal climate in Louisiana. Sen. Jay Luneau, an Alexandria Democrat, said the bill violates the separation of powers for different branches because the Louisiana Supreme Court regulates the practice of law, and said the “unconstitutional” change would lead to expensive litigation against the state.

• Senate Bill 452 by Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Franklin would reduce the amount of Louisiana Lottery proceeds that must be turned over to the state treasury from 35 percent, among the highest in the nation, to 25 percent.

Foil said the bill could have the coun terintuitive result of bringing in more money for state government, because when a lottery is able to offer bigger prizes, more people play. Legislative fiscal office staff estimates the change could be worth an extra $48.6 million to the state over five years.

• Senate Bill 270 by Sen. Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat, calls for increasing the daily compensation for Louisiana jurors from $25 to the federal trial rate of $50 and increase the travel compensation from 16 cents to 57.5 cents per mile. The bill does not allocate state money to pay for the change, so the higher costs would be borne by parish judicial districts.