Session Review 2021Transportation and Telecommunications

Session Review: Transportation and Telecommunications

Of the transportation and telecommunications issues considered this session, senators prioritized rural broadband development, lower administrative fees and expanded license plate options.

Rural broadband

Lawmakers passed a bill to increase broadband availability throughout the state.

Under LB388, introduced by Henderson Sen. Curt Friesen at the request of Gov. Pete Ricketts, the Public Service Commission will administer grants to providers, cooperatives and political subdivisions to fund qualifying broadband development projects.

The bill appropriates $20 million in fiscal year 2021-22 and FY2022-23 to the commission to fund the grants, with legislative intent that the same level of funding continue annually. Priority will be given to grants to unserved areas that previously have not been targeted for such a project, unserved areas that are receiving federal support for construction that will not be completed within 24 months and underserved areas that have developed a broadband and digital inclusion plan.

Eligibility is restricted to projects providing broadband internet service scalable to 100 Mbps for downloading and 100 Mbps for uploading, or greater. Each project must have a completion deadline of 18 months from the date the grant is awarded and be eligible for one extension of six months, to be approved by the PSC.

Political subdivisions must form a public-private partnership with a service provider to qualify for funding under LB388 and commit matching funds equal to 50 percent of the total development costs.

The bill requires all grant recipients to conduct randomized speed tests and submit the results to the PSC. If speeds fail to meet the bill’s requirements, the provider will be required to repay the grant.

The commission will approve grants for all qualified applicants while funding remains available, with no award to exceed $5 million. An applicant must provide broadband service for the entirety of the funding agreement. A grant recipient that fails to provide service at required speeds will have reasonable time to address the speed deficiency before funding is withdrawn.

LB388 passed on a 49-0 vote.

The Public Service Commission adopted rules in 2018 to withhold Nebraska Universal Service Fund support from telecommunications carriers that do not offer broadband services and instead redirect that funding to eligible carriers who could provide broadband in the same exchange area through a reverse auction process.

LB338, sponsored by Brainard Sen. Bruce Bostelman, authorizes a second method to redirect funds, known as a rural-based plan.

To qualify for consideration by the PSC, a rural-based plan must include an eligible telecommunications company. Plans will be judged on a company’s history and service capability in the area, as well as local support, partnerships with local public power and wireless internet service providers and cooperation by the incumbent local exchange carrier that has lost support from the commission.

The bill requires any recipient of ongoing high-cost financial support from the state universal service fund to submit to broadband service speed tests by the PSC. Any universal service funds distributed for new broadband infrastructure construction will be directed to projects that provide service scalable to 100 Mbps or greater of upload speed.

Additionally, any political subdivision that receives federal funding for broadband service enhancement will be required to provide service scalable to 100 Mbps or greater for both upload and download speed.

LB338 passed on a 46-0 vote.

Licensing and fees

Creighton Sen. Tim Gragert sponsored LB78, passed 46-0, to require an applicant for a Gold Star Family, Ex-Prisoner of War, Disabled American Veteran or Purple Heart/Combat Wounded license plate to register first with the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles will use the registry information to verify an individual’s eligibility.

Senators also approved the creation of two new specialty license plates this session.

Under LB317, sponsored by Omaha Sen. John Cavanaugh, Nebraska History license plates will be available in alphanumeric or personalized versions beginning Jan. 1, 2023. The plate will be designed in consultation with History Nebraska — formally known as the Nebraska Historical Society — and reflect the importance of preserving the state’s shared history.

The fee for the alphanumeric plate is $5, credited to the Support Nebraska History Cash Fund. Personalized plates will cost $40, with $10 credited to the state Department of Motor Vehicles Cash Fund and $30 credited to the Support Nebraska History Cash Fund.

The bill passed on a 39-0 vote.

LB166, sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist and passed 41-0, authorizes Josh the Otter-Be Safe Around Water license plates, available as of Jan. 1, 2022.

The fee for the alphanumeric plate is $5, credited to the Josh the Otter-Be Safe Around Water Cash Fund. Personalized plates will cost $40, with $10 credited to the state Department of Motor Vehicles Cash Fund and $30 credited to the Josh the Otter-Be Safe Around Water Cash Fund.

The bill requires the Game and Parks Commission to create a program to award grants from the cash fund to nonprofit organizations dedicated to educating children about water safety.

A bill to increase landline and wireless fees in certain counties failed to advance from general file this session.

Currently, 92 Nebraska counties can collect up to $1 per month, per landline telephone number, to pay for 911 services. Wireless phone carriers can charge up to 70 cents per phone number also to fund 911.

Both fees are capped at 50 cents per phone line in counties with a city of the metropolitan class. Douglas County is the only county where this exemption applies.

Venango Sen. Dan Hughes sponsored LB215, which would remove that exemption and effectively allow an increase of both fees in Douglas County. Senators voted 20-10 on advancement of the bill to select file, five votes short of the number required.

Committee members considered a proposal this year to provide a motor vehicle tax exemption to disabled veterans.

Under LB508, sponsored by Bostelman, a veteran with a 100 percent service-connected disability who was honorably discharged and is drawing Social Security would be eligible for the motor vehicle tax exemption for one vehicle owned and used for their personal transportation.

A veteran’s surviving spouse who receives dependency and indemnity compensation also would be eligible for the exemption. The bill remains in committee.

Other measures

Nebraska law enforcement will be required to make timely abandoned vehicle reports under a bill passed by lawmakers this session.

When an abandoned vehicle is towed, the towing company must notify any lienholder on the title, as well as the owner, within 15 business days. LB616, sponsored by Hughes, requires the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction to follow the notification requirements.

The bill, passed 45-0, also raises the immediate vesting level of an abandoned vehicle from $250 to $500.

Another measure considered remains in committee.

Current state law requires all motorcycle or moped riders to wear a protective helmet. LB581, introduced by Blair Sen. Ben Hansen, instead would give riders 21 and older the option not to wear a helmet, but would require eye protection while riding and completion of a certified motorcycle safety course.

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