As I write this column, the Oregon House of Representatives is preparing to consider Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association (ORECA)-supported legislation (HB 2654) to help bring broadband to rural and frontier Oregon. Normally, I would be in the House gallery, anxiously waiting for the vote, but these are still not normal times. For safety reasons, the Capitol is open only to essential personnel, so I am watching the debate via high-speed internet.
Many rural Oregonians do not have this luxury. Many of Oregon’s electric cooperatives offer broadband. Others are considering new broadband ventures to meet the needs of their members. Yet deploying fiber is difficult because it requires using easements that often were not intended for telecommunications use.
To get legal clarity for the use of these easements, ORECA worked closely with two outstanding legislators known for their passion for bringing broadband to every Oregonian no matter where they live: Representative Pam Marsh (D-Ashland) and Representative David Brock Smith (R-Port Orford.) They introduced HB 2654 and helped convene a wide range of stakeholders, including cable companies, property rights groups, farm organizations, and timber companies. The conversations were long and often difficult, but the bill made it out of the House Economic Recovery and Prosperity Committee under the steady leadership of Chair John Lively (D-Springfield).
I took a break from this column to watch the House debate on HB 2654. Representatives Marsh and Brock Smith both spoke eloquently about the importance of this bill, with Representaive Marsh noting, “We know the consequences of the digital divide.”
Other legislators also joined in on the merits of the bill. In the end, HB 2654 passed by a vote of 54 to 0, which is a rarity in a polarized political environment.
This unanimous vote is not as much of a testament to inspired floor speeches—which they were—but of the behind-the-scenes work by Representaives Marsh and Brock Smith to find a compromise that could unite a wide range of interests. The legislation is only halfway home, but it is enough to give a cynical politico like me some hope that, even though I can only watch it virtually, bipartisan legislating is still alive and well in the Oregon State Capitol.