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

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Gov. Phil Bryant shakes hands with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves after signing the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.

Even though a proposal to give rural electric cooperatives the authority to offer broadband sped its ways through the legislative process, some have questioned whether the utilities are responsive to their member-clients.

Wednesday morning, flanked by legislators, electric cooperatives members and others at a desk set out in the middle of the state Capitol, Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act.

The Republican governor praised the efficiency and cooperation in moving the legislation quickly through the process – the first bill to reach his desk this session.

“I think we are all excited about the opportunity this bill presents to rural Mississippi,” said Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Nettleton Democrat who led the effort to pass the bill, said he believes the cooperatives will help bring high speed internet to rural areas in Mississippi just as cooperatives played a major role in bringing electricity to rural areas in the 1930s and 1940s.

“This is the electricity of the 21 century,” said Presley after the bill signing, adding children should not “have to sit in the McDonald’s parking lot to do their homework.”

It took about 28 years to complete the task of bringing electricity to all of rural Mississippi, according to testimony from committee hearings held earlier this session on the bill.

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, hopes it does not take that long to bring internet to rural areas of Mississippi.

“Broadband is like public education,” he said. “Everybody ought to have access.”

Johnson said he voted for the bill to allow rural cooperatives to offer internet because “so far that is the only effort” the Legislature has taken up to address the issue.

But he said only four or five of the cooperatives have indicated they are ready to begin offering high speed internet to their members.

He advocated a state investment – such as issuing bonds on incurring debt – to install the costly fiber-optic lines needed to run high speed internet. He said both Tennessee and Kentucky have undertaken such efforts.

“It is that important to the state,” he said in terms of  attracting jobs and providing quality educational opportunities.

While Johnson voted for the rural cooperatives bill, he is among of a group of attorneys suing seven of the cooperatives, claiming the nonprofits are not returning to their members (customers) excess revenue as they are charged with doing as part of state and federal laws.

While working on the lawsuit, Johnson said it also has been discovered that while a large number of the cooperatives members are minority and women, he said less than 5 percent of board members are minorities and women.

“One guy said he was the youngest member of the board when he first was elected 30 years ago and he still is now,” Johnson said.

Johnson successfully amended the bill early in the process to require board elections to be better publicized. He said over time that should improve representation on the boards.

“Our boards have made great strides in trying to address the diversity issues, but we still have some work to do,” Michael Callahan, chief executive officer of the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi, conceded earlier in response to questions from Mississippi Today.

Callahan added all cooperatives are returning profits (called capital credits) to their members or are retiring debt.

He also said the cooperatives are transparent.

Callahan said, “In accordance to law, members are allowed into board meetings, though, they cannot be disruptive). Members can review audited financial statements and any member of the public can be shown the co-op’s 990,” referring to tax documents nonprofits file with the Internal Revenue Service.

The 25 rural electric cooperatives provide electricity to half the meters in the state.

At Wednesday’s bill signing, Callahan urged the cooperatives’ members to be patient, saying it will take time to begin the process. But he said all of the cooperatives have or will do feasibility studies to determine the viability of offering high speed internet.

He stressed in making the decisions the cooperatives will ensure that they do not forget their first and primary mission of providing electricity to the people in their service areas.

Callahan also said the cooperatives would meet with consultants almost immediately after the bill signing to look at the possibility of acquiring federal funds to help with the effort.

According to various studies, Mississippi is near the bottom in terms of access to high speed internet or broadband. The Federal Communications Commission ranks Mississippi last in terms of broadband access with 72 percent of the population having access to download speeds of at least 25 mbps and upload speeds of 3 mbps. Presley said that speed is in reality not fast enough for some activities, such as conducting telemedicine.