SENATE COMMITTEE ADVANCES RURAL BROADBAND BILL

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(AUSTIN) — The state would subsidize the construction of high-speed internet infrastructure in rural areas of Texas under a proposal approved by the Senate Finance Committee on Monday. There are roughly seven million Texans who live in areas that lack high speed internet, and with internet access becoming more important to everyday life the state has been looking for ways to make sure every Texan has access to a reliable, fast internet connection. HB 9, sponsored by committee chair and Houston Senator Joan Huffman, would build on work from last session by creating a dedicated fund for the purposes of expanding broadband access. “This bill seeks to distinguish the state of Texas with a strategic plan to support a holistic, state-driven approach to addressing our state’s connectivity needs,” she said. The new fund would exist in the Office of the Comptroller and is anticipated to pay out around $1.5 billion over the next two years. Money could be delivered in the form of grants or could be used to supply matching funds to draw down federal subsidies.

Current federal programs will match up to three times the amount put forward locally, but some members expressed concern about state money going to help what are often private companies. “We’re not talking about cities and counties, that’s not who’s putting up the match,” said Jacksonville Senator Robert Nichols. “In most cases, it’s a for-profit provider, they’re going to get all this infrastructure paid for and installed.” Nichols said he’d prefer that these companies pay for a small amount of the matching funds themselves. “I think people treat money better when they have a little skin in the game, it doesn’t have to be a lot,” he said.

Huffman also won approval of another bill that would help provide dignity and ease the anxiety and uncertainty that comes when a foster child is moved from one care setting to another. When told to pack their things, these children are often just handed a black plastic trash bag for their belongings. While there are many non-profit organizations in Texas that try and make sure these children have actual luggage in which to pack what little they have, they cannot cover all of them. HB 3765 would require that the Department of Family and Protective Services provide luggage to all foster children. “This just means that when they are shipped around, that they have a backpack to put their belongings in,” said Huffman.

On the floor Monday, the Senate approved a bill that is aimed at improving the behavior of parents when they are spectators at youth sports. Texas sports officials are increasingly becoming subject to verbal, and occasionally physical abuse by over-zealous parents and other spectators. So much so that the official industry group, the Texas Association of Sports Officials, implemented a policy last year of refusing to send referees or umpires to schools where there is excessive and unaddressed abuse directed at TASO officials.

The bill passed by the Senate Monday would add further consequences when verbal abuse of a referee escalates into physical abuse. “We all know how passionate we can get when an outcome doesn’t go our way,” said bill sponsor and South Padre Island Senator Morgan LaMantia. “Usually, yelling at the ref is enough to make us feel better, but in the worst case scenarios, spectators take things too far and physically harm the referee.” HB 2484 would outline clear standards and consequences for parents who take it too far at University Interscholastic League competitions. It would permit school districts to temporarily ban any spectator, including parents, from any UIL extracurriculars if they intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly cause bodily harm to a referee. “The integrity of the game depends on our referees, and we must ensure their safety,” said LaMantia.