BATON ROUGE — Members of the Joint Agriculture Committee voiced their desire to seek federal funds to improve rural infrastructure, especially broadband services, when the regular session starts next month.
The committee heard a presentation from Carrie Castille, the new federal Agriculture Department director of rural development for Louisiana, that outlined the priorities of the Trump Administration’s Rural Prosperity Task Force. She also highlighted various grants and loans available to rural businesses and municipalities.
The committee members showed particular enthusiasm for programs that would improve access to broadband internet service in rural communities.
Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, said broadband service is “virtually non-existent” in his district, and that improving that infrastructure is a critical step to revitalizing rural communities.
“People are not going to be able to meet the demands of the future,” Thompson said. “We can’t expect economic development in the area if we don’t have good connectivity.”
He said the state has fallen behind in providing rural broadband since it lost an $80 million federal grant in 2011. He added that with the state’s budget crisis, federal funds would a crucial component of any infrastructure improvement programs.
“We are always talking about our state’s financial needs, but we need to take advantage of any federal program that pays the lion’s share,” Thompson said.
Rep. Terry Brown, I-Natchitoches, said broadband service is “speckled” throughout his district, but his constituents struggle to receive the same customer service as subscribers in more densely populated areas.
“It comes within 300 yards of people’s houses, and they have called to get service, but AT&T won’t connect them,” Brown said, before quickly adding, “But AT&T has worked hard to get service to them.”
Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, said he was concerned that communities with less access to technology and lower computer literacy would have trouble utilizing federal grants that require online applications. He recommended that the USDA increase its outreach programs.
Thompson said he is considering legislation that would create a state entity to assist local and parish governments with their applications for federal funding. Thompson said he and his fellow members of the Rural Caucus scheduled this meeting well before the start of the regular session to start a conversation about funds that would be ready for use as early as October.
Thompson said programs like these ensure that rural Louisiana does not get left behind.
“If our plans are to grow Louisiana, we must grow all of Louisiana,” Thompson said. “We can’t pick and choose the easiest and most profitable places to develop for broadband or for roads and bridges.”
By Paul Braun, LSU Manship School News Service