Whatley bill to expand Opelika GIG internet dies in committee

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A bill from Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, that would have allowed Opelika Power Services to expand its GIG high-speed internet service to other areas in Lee County has died in an Alabama Senate Committee.

The bill, SB228, was voted down in the Senate Committee on Transportation and Energy by a vote of 7-6 and now has little to no path to passage through the Senate.

The committee's down vote marks a victory for the bill's opponents and a loss for local supporters of the bill, including Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller and Auburn Mayor Bill Ham.

Whatley said Thursday that he was disappointed with the vote but was still hopeful that the bill would make it through the Legislature anyway. Rep. Joe Lovvorn, R-Auburn, has a similar bill in the House that will have its own opportunity in a House committee in the coming weeks.

He said he was hopeful it would pass in the House if supporters from Lee County attend the bill's public hearing on Wednesday, April 12. Many weren't able to attend March 5's hearing because of severe weather.

"Hopefully we'll have some stakeholders so we can hear both sides," Lovvorn told The Plainsman

Whatley, who has now carried a bill like this for three years, said he considers the bill a local bill, which would usually get local courtesy — a process by which decisions on local bills are usually deferred to the legislative delegations from the areas that would be affected.

The bill died in the committee, despite full support from Lee County's delegation. Whatley said he is considering holding up other members' local bills as a form of retaliation.

"I'm not saying I'm going to do it for the whole session, but I'm going to make a point," Whatley told The Plainsman. "This was a local bill, and if you are going to mess with local bills then I'm going to make you pay somewhat of a price."

The bill, though it was only intended to affect Lee County and OPS, was not considered a local bill because it would have implications for other municipal utility providers. 

Whatley's bill would have allowed OPS to expand its internet service into underserved neighborhoods in North and South Auburn, which is why the bill drew support from Ham, Auburn University President Jay Gogue and City Councilman Ron Anders.

"It's an economic and an educational issue, especially when you go to recruit a business," Whatley said. "If you have an area with great schools, a great water system, great hospitals, great roads, that goes a long way. But if you have GIG internet service, that's just another thing that's in your portfolio to offer people."

All of the bills would allow the utility provider — owned by the citizens of Opelika and operated as a department of the city of Opelika — to expand its services outside of the city. OPS has been a public utility since 1911.

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