Loading remodel leftovers | Robesonian

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LUMBERTON — More money for the expansion of internet access in rural areas of North Carolina will be a priority for two Robeson County lawmakers when the General Assembly reconvenes Wednesday for a brief session.

Sen. Danny Britt Jr., a Republican from Lumberton, is among state legislators who signaled support for additional funding for the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, Grant program in 2020 ahead of the September short session. Britt and other legislators hope to inject $30 million from the federal CARES Act money into the program to fund another round of awards in 2020.

“From Day One the GREAT program has benefited rural North Carolina, including Robeson and Columbus counties,” Britt said. “Access to reliable internet is an absolute game-changer for our business community, our education systems, and our daily life. It’s more important than ever to ensure our students and small business owners have access to reliable internet.”

The legislature has allocated $24 million to the program this year, according to information from the lawmakers. In 2020 more than $12 million in grant funding has been awarded to expand access to 8,017 households and 254 businesses in 11 counties.

“As a rural county we’re struggling with our children having access to the internet. That’s been on the minds of a lot of parents and a lot of teachers. It’s an access to public education issue,” said Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat from Lumberton.

The internet access problem has existed for years, and its probably not going to be resolved next week, but lawmakers need to work in a bipartisan way to support equal opportunity for the children in rural Robeson County, Graham said.

“So I’m going to be advocating for and pushing for additional funding for access to internet in rural counties through the GREAT grants program reward,” he said. “I want to see more funding for the GREAT grants program.”

Senate Leader Phil Berger’s office confirmed Thursday that the issue will be taken up when the General Assembly reconvenes next week.

“Yes, legislators will be discussing the additional $30 million for the GREAT program next week. It is one of several pieces of legislation the General Assembly will consider to allocate the remaining CARES Act funding,” a statement from Berger’s office reads.

The expressed support for more funding for the GREAT program comes in the wake of a Friday announcement that regional communications services company ATMC was awarded two grants totaling $2.5 million to expand internet service to communities in Columbus and Robeson counties.

Shallotte-based ATMC was one of eight recipients of funding during the second round of the NC GREAT Grant broadband program. The money will be used to expand high speed internet service to serve more than 2,000 homes in the Columbus County communities of Fair Bluff and Boardman, and the Robeson County communities of Orrum and Proctorville. ATMC is to provide an additional $1 million dollars in matching funds to complete these projects.

“Access to high-speed internet allows a person to expand his or her world beyond their wildest imagination,” said Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan. “Students from Murphy to Manteo are losing out on critical learning because they don’t have access to the internet. As remote learning becomes a new norm, it is imperative we invest in this infrastructure.”

The General Assembly created the GREAT program in 2018. Since then lawmakers have continued to prioritize funding to expand broadband, despite Gov. Roy Cooper vetoing funding for it in 2018 and 2019, according to a joint statement from Republican lawmakers.

“When we created the GREAT program in 2018 it was innovative and became a model for other states,” said Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union. “This pandemic only highlights the extraordinary need to continue to fund this program. Investing in rural broadband is an investment in the future of North Carolina.”

In May, the General Assembly approved $11 million for additional Wi-Fi access in homes, $35 million for electronic devices to access remote learning, and $1 million to equip buses with Wi-Fi, according to the lawmakers’ statement. In September, the legislature hopes to allocate an additional $10 million for internet hot spots for K-12 students.

“This funding reinforces the commitment from both the Senate and the House to connect our students, parents and teachers to online learning resources no matter what challenges are before us,” said Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln.

Short sessions of the North Carolina General Assembly typically are called only for the purpose of taking up budgetary matters, and appointments and nominations to various boards and organizations.

The short session that starts Wednesday is scheduled to be one-day affair, with lawmakers convening Wednesday and going home Thursday. But the closure resolution, also known as Senate Bill 870, approved June 26 was passed sine die, meaning lawmakers left the door open for staying longer to take up issues they deem need to be addressed immediately.

One of those issues could be Gov. Cooper’s spending proposal, which he announced Wednesday. The proposal includes ideas on how to spend the state’s remaining COVID-19 federal relief dollars. Cooper also wants immediate adjustment to the annual state government spending plan that began July 1.

The Democratic governor said he wants to spend $559 million more in state dollars for such things as disaster relief and education for at-risk students. He wants teacher bonuses well beyond what Republican lawmakers approved in June. Cooper also wants Medicaid expansion and more than $5 billion in proposed new debt for capital projects and infrastructure.

Rep. Graham said he will “pursue very hard” Medicaid expansion in the next session.

“We’ve kicked the can down the road in our previous sessions and we’ve not done anything,” he said. “This is a grave concern to many North Carolinians and the 13,000-plus in Robeson County who are not insured. This is an opportunity to give them the opportunity to close the health-care coverage gap. This is a moral issue.”

Republicans have blasted Cooper’s spending plan. They call it a risky “spend now, pray later” proposal that comes four months late.

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