SHERIDAN — A legislative committee meeting held at Sheridan City Hall this week explored a variety of topics of import — including broadband Internet service, employer access to employee social media accounts and the constitutionality of Wyoming’s aggregate campaign contribution limits.
The meeting of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee of the Wyoming Legislature met Wednesday and Thursday in Sheridan for its first of three scheduled meetings in the interim before the 2015 legislative session.
Co-Chairman Rosie Berger, R-Big Horn, said 12 of 14 committee members from across the state were able to attend the meeting. Several local officials, state legislators and people with an interest in the topics also attended.
“All the things we were doing is the start of research and analysis,” Berger said. “We hope that in September, we will have draft legislation to look at. We will take public testimony then. We will finalize legislation in November and vote to introduce it as a committee or not. This week is the start of creating legislation for the next session.”
Internet for everyone
The first topic of discussion Wednesday packed the council chambers on the third floor of city hall, Berger said. It covered telecommunications, focusing on the federal rewrite of the Telecommunications Act coming in 2015, an update on Gov. Matt Mead’s broadband expansion and discussion on whether a sales and use tax exemption for broadband companies would be feasible and beneficial to local governments.
Essentially, the federal Telecommunications Act rewrite, called Connect America, has said that broadband Internet access is now a necessity for life and business in America and needs to be prioritized.
In Wyoming, Berger said between 40-50 percent of residents no longer have a landline telephone and rely on smartphones and wireless Internet access for their communication needs. This has increased the need for Internet service providers to provide Internet across Wyoming, which is a challenge due to the rural nature of the state.
“The historical challenge in a rural state is to address the very rural area of consumer needs. The last mile of service is always the most expensive,” Berger said.
Even with contributions to a universal service fund to compensate for providing service to rural areas, there is not enough to reach into the most rural of areas, Berger said. So, the corporations committee is discussing if and how to develop a parity of rules and regulations for all service providers to extend internet service to even the remotest of areas in Wyoming in order to keep up with the federal changes.
At this point, Berger said the only telecomunications company required to provide service to that “last mile” is CenturyLink. Since only CenturyLink is reviewed by the Public Service Commission, all other wireless providers are not held to the same standard.
“In a competitive world, that is quite restrictive,” Berger said.
The committee will begin to look at how to require all telecommunication companies, such as ACT, Verizon, AT&T and a variety of range phone providers, to provide service in rural areas and how to compensate them if such service is mandated.
“We will structurally look at different things that are there for our September meeting so we can make certain that Wyoming customers have the best service,” Berger said. “We are trying to look ahead and adjust our statutes so we have a fair and competitive market.”
Public/private internet partnerships
Along the same strain, the committee heard an update on the governor’s unified network, which the Legislature funded at $15.5 million in the 2014 budget session.
Berger said Flint Waters, chief information officer for Wyoming, noted that Wyoming is the first state in the nation to install a 100-gigabit “backbone” of ethernet to service the entire state. Currently 22 of 23 counties have high speed ethernet capability and Sublette County is in the works.
The ethernet will serve all the schools and state government offices across the state. However, it also opens the door for a public/private relationship where private companies like ACT or CenturyLink can build onto the unified network backbone to serve private individuals with high speed internet access.
“I think this is turning out to be a really good structure, and I think the ethernet technology being able to create this kind of connectivity is a win-win for Wyoming,” Berger said.
That discussion led into whether sales and use tax exemptions could be given to broadband companies to incentivize business expansion and data center growth. If the exemption could foster growth, which would increase jobs, it may be worth it for local governments that would take a hit from loss of sales tax revenue but could gain property tax revenue and other benefits of an increased economy.
Campaign contributions and barbers
The Wyoming Liberty Group approached the committee to say that Wyoming’s statutes that limit aggregate, or total, campaign contributions by an individual donor to $25,000 is unconstitutional. This stemmed from a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC that said one donor should not be limited in total campaign contributions to one political party. There are still limitations on how much one candidate can receive from individual donors, but if someone wants to give 50 $1,000 donations to 50 different candidates, they may.
Berger said it would cost too much to hold a special session of the Wyoming Legislature to resolve the matter, but that it will be taken care of in the 2015 session.
The committee also discussed changing to electronic poll books for elections to prevent fraud and provide more efficient tallies and information.
One of the final topics of discussion was whether to combine the cosmetology and barber boards into one board. This would allow cosmetologists and barbers to license each other, although there is debate on who is qualified more since cosmetologists aren’t allowed to shave beards or heads and barbers are.
The crux of the problem is that currently more than one third of barbers in Wyoming are over age 60. There are no barber schools in the state to train future barbers. There was discussion that Wyoming needs to allow out-of-state barbers to be certified in Wyoming and open a barber school.
“If we don’t address this issue, it becomes a dying profession,” Berger said.