When Gov. Jim Justice announced his billion-dollar broadband expansion plan on Friday, West Virginia’s congressional delegation was quick to applaud it.
“I congratulate Governor Justice on this announcement, which will help us continue our work together to better connect West Virginia,” U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said.
U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney called the governor’s plan a “monumental step in expanding the reach of high-speed internet to students, small businesses and all West Virginians,” and U.S. Rep. Carol Miller said the investment was historic and would “bring more connectivity, commerce and opportunity to our state.”
U.S. Rep. David McKinley congratulated Justice on his “aggressive” behavior on putting the plan together and called it a “home run.”
But, West Virginia’s Republicans in Congress all voted against the federal stimulus spending that makes up a big chunk of the broadband initiative: the American Rescue Plan.
Back in March, when the ARP was passed, and despite Justice — a fellow Republican — supporting the legislation, Capito called it too expensive and too partisan. All of West Virginia’s Republican representatives similarly criticized it to back their no votes.
Sen. Joe Manchin voted for the law, as did every other Democrat in the Senate. Only one Democrat in the House of Representatives voted against it.
After Friday’s announcement, a spokesperson for Miller later doubled down on her ARP complaints, saying in an email: “Rep. Miller supports funding for broadband, but not when it’s included in socialist wish lists that will increase taxes and saddle future generations with the cost.”
Miller’s spokesperson did not respond to additional questions, and a McKinley spokesperson did not respond to emailed questions.
A spokesperson for Capito did not publicly comment, and a spokesperson for Mooney wrote that Mooney was glad the broadband money was secured, but made no mention of the large portion that came from the bill he voted against.
At least $326 million in ARP money
Justice says his plan will bring broadband to at least 200,000 West Virginia homes and businesses. If that goal is achieved, that’s a big deal for the state that has one of the lowest broadband connectivity rates in the nation.
Nearly a fifth of West Virginians don’t have a high-speed internet connection to their home, according to a federal report released earlier this year. That’s more than the year before, making the state rank 48th in the nation in broadband connectivity.
This is after multiple squandered opportunities to expand access to broadband in the state.
In September 2020, Justice pledged $50 million of the state’s federal CARES Act money to bring internet to underserved areas in West Virginia. He ultimately ended up spending only $35 million of that, and Mountain State Spotlight found that none of it actually went to delivering better internet to homes and businesses.
Even before that, a West Virginia legislative auditor’s report found that millions of stimulus dollars from 2010 that could have gone to expand high-speed internet was wasted.
This time, the state has a lot more money to work with, and the governor’s office said the state has spent more than two years mapping broadband access around West Virginia, which resulted in a detailed inventory of underserved locations that will allow pinpoint funding allocation.
The money for the project comes mainly from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund — funds distributed by the Federal Communications Commission — and a mix of state and federal money flowing through the West Virginia State Broadband Initiative.
In all, this initiative will use $226 million from West Virginia’s American Rescue Plan funds. But state Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael predicted there would be an additional $100 million in local government ARP contributions to the plan.
The plan also contains at least $120 million in other funding sources, primarily federal ones, including from the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
But, overall, nearly a third of Justice’s plan relies on the federal money that West Virginia’s Republicans in Congress — Capito, McKinley, Miller and Mooney — voted against.