Capitol Week-in-Review – October 13, 2016

Governor Requests Federal Disaster Aid for Western Wisconsin

On Tuesday, Governor Walker sent a letter to President Obama requesting federal disaster assistance for Adams, Chippewa, Clark, Crawford, Eau Claire, Jackson, Juneau, La Crosse, Monroe, Richland, Trempealeau, and Vernon Counties to help local governments recover from the damages caused by torrential rains, flash flooding and mudslides over a two-day period in late September.

Last week, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Emergency Management conducted damage assessments across the impacted areas with local officials. They identified more than $11 million in damages to roads and public infrastructure.

If the request is approved, FEMA provides 75% of eligible costs associated with removing debris, and repairing roads and other infrastructure. The State of Wisconsin and local communities impacted share the remaining 25%.

Business and homeowners impacted by the September storms are not eligible for funding under this FEMA Public Assistance Program. However, Governor Walker is working with other federal and state agencies to see if there are additional programs that could provide assistance to flood victims.

Rural Broadband Study Committee Makes Final Recommendations

Early this year, the Wisconsin State Legislature created a Legislative Council Study Committee of Rural Broadband. The Committee was directed to:

  • Review the Wisconsin Broadband Expansion Grant Program and the extent to which it has encouraged construction of broadband infrastructure in areas of the state with few broadband service providers;
  • Discuss the criteria used to evaluate applications and award grants, consider alternatives for determining eligibility and prioritizing proposed projects; and
  • Consider alternative methods for encouraging construction of broadband infrastructure, and identify options.

At its October 5 meeting the Committee unanimously approved the following recommendations:

  • Permanent Annual Funding for the Broadband Expansion Grant Program – beginning in 2015 and continuing through 2018, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) – the state agency which administers the Broadband Expansion Grant program – is authorized to award up to $1.5 million annually in Broadband Expansion Grants. The Committee recommended that the PSC be required to fund Broadband Expansion Grants at $1.5 million annually beginning in 2019.
  • Broadband Expansion Grant Priority Criteria – Economic Development – under the existing Broadband Expansion Grant Program, PSC is required to give priority to grant projects that promote economic development, but the term “economic development” is undefined. The Committee recommended that “economic development” be defined to mean development that is designed to promote job growth or retention, expand the property tax base or improve the overall economic vitality of a town, village, city, county or region.
  • Broadband Expansion Grant Priority Criteria – Areas without Service – under the existing Broadband Expansion Grant Program, PSC is required to give priority to grant projects that affect areas with no broadband service providers. However, current law does not define “broadband service.” The Committee recommended that the PSC be authorized to designate areas of the state as “unserved,” and an “unserved area” would mean an area of Wisconsin that is not served by an Internet service provider offering Internet service that is all of the following: wired service or fixed wireless service, which includes service that is a telecommunications service that provides radio communication between fixed points but which excludes mobile wireless service; and provided at actual speeds of at least 20% of the upload and download speeds for high-speed, switched, broadband telecommunications capability as designated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Therefore, an unserved area would be an area without access to Internet service at a 5 Mbps download/ 0.6 Mbps upload speed. This speed would allow homeowners and businesses to send and receive e-mail; view interactive webpages and short videos; and stream feature movies.
  • Broadband Expansion Grant Priority Criteria – Delayed Deployment – the existing Broadband Expansion Grant program does not directly address projects that may inadvertently delay deployment of broadband service. To illustrate this point, the committee discussed a hypothetical situation in which a grant is awarded for a project to provide broadband service to a business park. The Committee discussed whether, by providing financial support to extend broadband service to the most profitable customer in an area, a grant would eliminate the incentive for a broadband service provider to more broadly deploy infrastructure and provide service to less profitable residential customers. To address this concern, the Committee recommended that the PSC be required to give priority to grant projects that will not result in delaying the provision of broadband service to areas adjacent to areas to be served by the proposed project.
  • Consideration of Certain Broadband Expansion Grant Project Impacts – the importance of high-speed Internet service extends beyond the needs of businesses and homeowners. Advances in medicine allow health care providers to treat their patients online in real time. In many school districts, teachers assign homework requiring students to access the Internet. The Committee recommended that the PSC be required to consider the impact of proposed broadband expansion projects on the ability of individuals to access health care services from home and the ability of students to access educational opportunities from home when evaluating Broadband Expansion grant applications.

Soon, the Rural Broadband Study Committee will report their recommendations, in the form of legislation, to the Joint Legislative Council for approval and subsequent consideration by state lawmakers during the 2017-2018 legislative session.

We support the Committee’s recommendations. Establishing a permanent funding source for the Broadband Expansion Grant program ensures that broadband deployment in rural parts of Wisconsin will be an ongoing priority. We believe the programmatic reforms will result in more grant awards to the most worthy and robust broadband deployment projects.

With that said, we will be lobbying for additional state funding for the Broadband Expansion Grant program. Only 56.4% of Wisconsin’s rural residents have access to broadband service that meets FCC standards. A larger investment by the State of Wisconsin is needed to provide all Wisconsin businesses and homeowners with access to broadband service.

Federal Health Care Law Update

In order for Wisconsin insurers to offer health insurance policies on the federally facilitated health insurance exchange, they must submit their policies to the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance (OCI) for review to ensure each policy is compliant with all laws and regulations. Last Friday, OCI announced that it has completed its review of exchange-offered policies and provided the following guidance.

1. Insurance Premium Rates for 2017

According to OCI, the average rate increase for individual Affordable Care Act (ACA)-compliant health insurance plans in Wisconsin is 15.88%. Consumers in some areas may see increases as high as 30.37%. These rate changes and the recent exiting of numerous national carriers make it even more important for individuals to actively explore their health insurance options to ensure appropriate coverage.

2. Open Enrollment

This year, open enrollment runs from November 1, 2016, until January 31, 2017. Consumers seeking individual coverage should sign up before January 31 or risk being locked out of the individual insurance market until 2018. Consumers facing a loss of their group coverage or other special situations may be eligible for special enrollment periods.

ACA requires insurers to offer coverage on a guaranteed issue basis to all eligible consumers during an annual open enrollment period. Open enrollment allows individuals to re-enroll in their existing health insurance plans or to shop for a new plan. It is important for consumers who receive a tax subsidy through the federal exchange to understand how the subsidy will impact the cost of the plan.

3. Auto Re-Enrollment

In cases where a consumer’s current health insurer is exiting the market and the policy was purchased through the federal exchange, the federal government will assign the consumer to a new health insurer if the consumer does not purchase coverage through the exchange. This process is called “auto re-enrollment.” Consumers can opt-out of auto re-enrollment for 2017 without enrolling in a new plan.

For more information about auto re-enrollment, go here.