Representatives Bill Owens (D-NY) and Chris Gibson (R-NY) today introduced an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations Act (H.R. 2112) that would restore funding to the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) Broadband Loan and Loan Guarantee program. Funding for the program would allow municipalities and organizations located in underserved, rural areas to secure funds for the costs of the construction, improvement, and acquisition of facilities and equipment for broadband service. The bipartisan amendment to restore modest funding to the RUS loan program is supported by the American Farm Bureau, the New York State Farm Bureau, the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, the Western Telecommunications Alliance, and the Business Council of New York State. The amendment passed today by a vote of 221-198.
"It is critical to the future success of Upstate New York that we work to invest in broadband infrastructure," said Owens. "This amendment will give local officials and business leaders the tools they need to connect rural communities to each other and enhance access to health care, education and government facilities."
This is the latest in a series of efforts by Congressman Owens to develop Upstate New York economies through responsible investment in broadband infrastructure. In March, Owens introduced legislation that would direct the USDA to craft a comprehensive plan to expand broadband access to rural America. In April, Owens joined the Development Authority of the North Country to announce the beginning of a partnership between local and federal departments that would extend infrastructure through Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Lewis, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga, and St. Lawrence counties. Throughout his time in office, Owens has served as an outspoken proponent of electronic medical record programs like the ones used on post at Fort Drum and in surrounding clinics in Jefferson County.
"In short, this Chamber supports funding that will level the playing field and keep St. Lawrence County viable," said Pat McKeown, Executive Director of the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. "Ours is a sprawling county, 2,850 square miles, mostly populated by lakes, rivers and trees. This Chamber, plus its 800 members, is involved in an effort to create a 4-legged stool so that our people can compete with the more urban centers. These legs are broadband accessibility, reliable air service, good highways, and passenger/freight rail programs with reliable service and competitive pricing. We do not encourage our people to leave home in order to have what their city-dwelling counterparts have. We fear that this migration to technologically-progressive neighborhoods will decimate our rural landscape."
"When we look at the pockets of increased economic development and medical advances in recent years, there is a direct relationship between broadband access and the success of small business, as well as the efficient delivery of health care in a region," added Owens. "This amendment will ensure that we can continue to invest in rural economies in a fiscally responsible way."
The RUS Broadband Loan and Loan Guarantee Program was last reauthorized in the 2008 Farm Bill through 2012, and was created by Congress in the 2002 Farm Bill.
The RUS Broadband Loan program received $22.3 million in FY 2011. Without the Gibson-Owens amendment, the Agriculture Appropriations Act would zero out the program for fiscal year 2012. The proposed amendment restores $6 million in funding, below the amount appropriated for fiscal year 2008.
"As I have traveled through Upstate New York, small business owners and farmers have shared with me the impact that the lack of broadband has on their potential for growth. It is absolutely critical for economic development in my rural communities that we continue to deploy broadband technology. This loan program is the only federal source dedicated solely to broadband deployment in rural areas and while it can continue to be reformed to be used more effectively, I believe it's worthy of support instead of elimination," said Congressman Gibson. "I remain committed to working with our local communities to find ways to expand broadband access and this amendment is an important first step."
The Gibson-Owens amendment is fully paid for by reducing the amount USDA spends on office space.