Ausley: Broadband for All bill will address rural disparities

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Thank you for giving me the honor of serving as your state senator. The 2021 legislative session officially started the first week of March with a joint session of the legislature. Every year, Florida’s governor and Cabinet participate in the opening day ceremonies, and the governor addresses the joint session to lay out his State of the State, much like the president’s State of the Union address. Governor Ron DeSantis discussed the state’s response to COVID and several of his priorities for the legislative session. By constitution, Florida’s legislative session last for 60 days, so we will be meeting in Tallahassee for the next five weeks.

It’s no secret that there is much work to be done and we have hit the ground running. For the last several months, I have been listening to constituents across North Florida including 11 delegation meetings which helped to shape my legislative agenda. We have filed legislation and funding initiatives focusing on issues such as improved access to telehealth, broadband internet, early education and economic development.

Broadband Internet Services: The pandemic has proven that high-speed internet is essential for education, work, health care and economic development, yet many Floridians lack access. There are areas in our urban communities where internet is available yet unaffordable, while many of our rural communities are left behind with poor or no service at all. SB 1560 begins to address these disparities by requiring effective mapping to identify gaps in services and recognizing that basic access to the internet isn’t enough – it has to be high speed internet.

Early Education Scholarship Program: Quality early learning is expensive, and parents need options. Much like the existence of Bright Futures for college, this bill sets up a scholarship program to help families pay for child care. Brighter Futures will expand current scholarships to more families, putting Florida in a position to take advantage of expected federal investments. Now is the time for an honest discussion about the importance of quality child care and the need for real investments to ensure that every single kid has the opportunity for the best start in life.

Apalachicola Bay Area of Critical State Concern: The Apalachicola Bay area is a true treasure, and as with anything valuable, we must do what we can to improve and protect it. Senate Bill 1278 will provide funding to improve surface water and groundwater quality to help restore the bay.

As we all continue to live everyday with the challenges presented by COVID, I know that so many Floridians are struggling. This session will also need to address the very basic and essential needs like food, shelter and jobs.

Week Three of the annual Legislative Session is now in the books. By now I hope you know that broadband expansion is my top priority, so I am excited to report that SB 1560, our Broadband for All bill, passed unanimously through its first committee this week. While the past year has been so challenging for so many, it has also helped to shine a light on serious issues like how important high-speed internet is for school, for work and for health care. Far too many Floridians do not have access because of pricing, speed, or a complete lack of connectivity. Finally, there seems to be a real appetite for addressing this issue once and for all. SB 1560 includes both rural and urban strategies, and positions Florida to take advantage of a renewed federal emphasis on broadband for all.

While we had a short floor session this week, most of the week’s work was spent in committees. This process helps to vet and work out details of legislation. In the Senate Agriculture committee, we are looking closely at the issue of food insecurity. This week we passed SB 1768 which will improve the overall condition of agriculture and nutrition in our state by placing preference on Florida Grown products. This will support our farmers while helping food pantries, schools and churches meet the growing need for food assistance. I have long been a volunteer and supporter of Second Harvest of the Big Bend, and I have seen firsthand how great the need is -- especially during pandemics and hurricanes.

Next week in committees we will begin vetting the 2021-22 budget. I will also be meeting with our members of Congress to discuss how the recently passed federal stimulus package will impact our state budget and local communities. I have been working hard to support the priorities many of you have shared are important to Senate District 3.

Loranne Ausley has served as a member of the Florida Senate since 2020, representing Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Hamilton, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Taylor, and Wakulla counties. Please contact her if you have positions on any legislation or wish to share your concerns, questions or need assistance with a state agency at Ausley.Loranne.web@flsenate.gov or 850-487-5003.

This article originally appeared on The Star: Ausley: Broadband for All bill will address rural disparities

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