Legislative leaders, Gov. Cooper reach deal on rural broadband funding

Phil Berger, Roy Cooper, Tim Moore
FILE PHOTO Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, from left, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and House Speaker Tim Moore pause prior to a news conference. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH – Legislative leaders and Gov. Roy Cooper reached a deal to ensure the GREAT rural broadband program receives $30 million as promised in a joint statement announced Thursday.

In September, the legislature passed, and Gov. Cooper signed, legislation to allocate $30 million in federal CARES Act relief funding to the GREAT program, which provides grants to expand rural broadband access.

State legislators raised concerns in November when providers who has applied to be included in the $30 million program received word that the funds would not be distributed due to concerns over eligibility. Gov. Cooper’s legislative director, Lee Lilley, claimed that the $30 million appropriation would “violate U.S. Treasury rules” because the projects in question would not be “realized in the statutory timeframe.”

A letter dated Nov. 20 was by Republican senators to Cooper asking for information regarding the decision. A notice published on the Broadband Infrastructure Office read, “The 2020 Special Supplementary Round of the GREAT Grant Program was to be funded using an appropriation from the CARES Act. Unfortunately, it has been determined that these projects are not eligible for CARES Act funding under the current U.S. Department of Treasury guidelines.”

Despite other states’ use of the money for similar purposes, the two sides were able to work out a deal to ensure providers would receive funding.

The Cooper administration will use the flexibility afforded by state law to redirect the $30 million previously allocated to the GREAT program to other eligible expenses for which state general fund dollars would have been used. The legislature will then vote on a bill in early 2021 to appropriate the newly freed up $30 million from the general fund to the GREAT program, according to the statement.

Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) said, “I appreciate the work put in by legislators and legislative staff, working with Gov. Cooper and his team, to reach this agreement. Expanding access to rural broadband is a shared priority, and I’m glad we could successfully resolve this issue.”

Gov. Roy Cooper added, “This pandemic has emphasized the importance of high-speed internet for people across our state and it is critical that we continue increasing access in rural communities. My administration is committed to following the law and getting maximum benefit from federal COVID relief funding, and I appreciate legislative leaders and my budget staff ensuring that funds can be used to expand internet access in North Carolina.”