Legislature NEGOP Rural Nebraska

New Governor, same feedlot smell: Pillen prepares to pillage rural broadband funds

On January 6, just a day after taking office, new Nebraska governor “Step Into a Slim” Jim Pillen took his first steps toward financially rewarding his Good ‘Ol Boy network by announcing the creation of a new “Broadband Office” by executive order. This office will take over the Nebraska Broadband Bridge Program (NBBP), passed by the legislature in LB388 last year and signed into law by the less hirsute but equally porcine former governor Ricketts. As you can read here, the NBBP will use a variety of federal and state funds to help bring long-overdue broadband service to parts of rural Nebraska. And we’re all for it! This is a critical program for evening the playing field for rural residents of our state, letting them compete both in modern business and have a real-time voice in the marketplace of ideas.

What we’re NOT a fan of is what Jimmy P. is already trying to do with the NBBP to hide crony kickbacks from public scrutiny: while announcing his executive order, Lincoln senator Suzanne Geist (you might recognize her “rural auntie” makeover vibe beaming down from practically every billboard in the city for her mayoral run, or you might remember her father’s tainted blood scandal that killed thousands of Canadians) introduced LB683, which further refines the details toward implementing the new Broadband Office. In last year’s LB388, NBBP authority was designated to Nebraska’s Public Service Commission, the state agency most logically equipped to navigate such matters, as they already have experience with telecommunications systems and the kinds of grants and initiatives that expand and improve our communications infrastructure. There are standards to follow, metrics to be achieved, and deadlines to make, or we stand to lose many millions of dollars in federal funds. The Public Service Commission has successfully administered many annual cycles of broadband grant programs across the state, and they’re already handling these deadlines for the first year of NBBP.

However, LB683 involves some odd machinations. It will move the administration of the NBBP from the Public Service Commission to the state Department of Transportation, and the new Broadband Office will be housed there. And the bill has an emergency clause, so it will take effect as soon as the legislature passes it and the governor signs it. 

Creating a new office and bouncing it between state agencies is an unusual move in Nebraska. In fact, the trend in our state has been toward consolidation of departments rather than expansion. In 2019, for example, the Department of Environmental Quality and the State Energy Office were merged, creating the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy. In 2017, the Department of Roads and the Department of Aeronautics were consolidated into the Department of Transportation. Both of these moves were touted for saving money and creating greater efficiency. Creating a new office and moving its duties to a different agency altogether won’t save money, and it will create confusion rather than efficiency, as all of the employees who have been working on rural broadband for years–many for a decade–will suddenly have different Public Service Commission concerns on their plates.

Pillen has made Patrick Redmond the interim director of his new Broadband Office, which is a carryover from the Ricketts administration where he served as the State Broadband Coordinator in Ricketts’ “Connect Nebraska Working Group,” put into place to help get the NBBP started under the Public Service Commission. Redmond was already an unorthodox pick for that job–he took it on as an extension of working for Ricketts as a budget management analyst, fresh out of college with undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science. Without previous professional experience in finance or broadband, he’s obviously some kind of strategic political plant, but his presence will be the only continuity remaining in the administration of NBBP if the program is suddenly relocated at the signing of LB683. And the state fiscal year runs July 1 to June 30, while some federal programs are probably navigated on the federal fiscal year of October 1 to September 30. Presumably the bill will be signed sometime in the spring and go into effect immediately because of the emergency clause. Will deadlines be missed, and funding lost while a new staff gets up to speed?

And what will happen next fiscal year? One has to suspect that the underlying goal here is to get a new staff working for the NBBP, one that’s totally new to the various complicated programs that have to be administered, and working under a time crunch that will make them very amenable to suggestion. The shakeup in the NBBP will also leave the new team vulnerable to “outside help” from the corporate world. Deloitte comes to mind, a consulting firm that you might remember for making a deliberately inaccessible web portal for Nebraskans who tried to apply for COVID-related federal aid relief. They have been developing their own narratives around broadband implementation, and their lobbyist has commented on broadband-related bills as recently as last year. Do we really want to make it easier for Deloitte and similar corporate grifters to get paid by the state of Nebraska for (strategically) sub-par work? In other words, significant portions of the millions of dollars allocated for implementing rural broadband in Nebraska may instead be diverted into the pockets of gubernatorial and ex-gubernatorial pals. Getting off to kind of a Pillenous…er, villainous start, Jim. 

The hearing on LB683 will be before the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee on February 7th. That will be in room 1113 in the Capitol at 9:30 AM. Dear readers, could you let your friends in the Western parts of the state know about this? They probably can’t access it yet because they still don’t have broadband.