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Monday, January 30, 2017

Ind. Gov't. - "Funding elusive for Pence’s bicentennial projects"

Tony Cook had this important story on the front-page of the Sunday Indianapolis Star. A few quotes:

Vice President Mike Pence has a new home in Washington, D.C., and an office in the White House, but back in Indiana, state officials are still scrambling to figure out how to pay for several bicentennial construction projects Pence initiated as governor without a solid financing plan.

At issue are $53.5 million in new projects Pence sought as part of the state’s 200th birthday celebration last year. They included a new $2 million Bicentennial Plaza at the Indiana Statehouse, a $2.5 million education center at the neighboring State Library, a new $25 million state archives building and a $24 million inn at Potato Creek State Park in St. Joseph County.

Construction on the plaza — with its two large sculptures and water features — and the education center already are complete. Some design work for the archives building also has occurred. So far, the state has spent more than $5 million.

Skeptical lawmakers allowed Pence to spend taxpayer money on the projects as part of the state's 200th birthday celebration after he assured them he could pay for projects by leasing excess space on the Indiana's 340 state-owned cell towers.

But two years after those assurances were made, a cell tower deal has yet to materialize.

Now, Gov. Eric Holcomb, Pence's successor and fellow Republican, is trying to find a way to fill the $5.5 million hole those projects left in the state budget. * * *

[L]awmakers raised concerns when Pence first proposed funding the projects with a cell phone tower deal. Even Republican fiscal leaders expressed doubts about Pence's proposed funding mechanism after IndyStar exposed last year that any cell tower deal likely would fall short of fully funding the projects.

“I’m going on faith," Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said last year. "They assured me they can get this done.”

Amid such concerns — and in the heat of the presidential campaign — Pence announced in September that a cell phone tower deal had been reached with Ohio-based Agile Networks. The deal would provide the state with $50 million upfront and more during the life of the 25-year lease, his administration said.

“This agreement, if approved, will put underused assets into full play, enhance Indiana’s communication capabilities throughout the state and fund the state’s bicentennial projects,” Pence said at the time.

What Pence didn't say was that the deal with Agile Networks was far more expansive than advertised. Not only would it have given Agile control over the state's cell phone towers, it also would have allowed the company to use the state's vast fiber network.

That stirred fierce opposition from the state's cable and broadband trade groups, which represent companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner.

A spokesman for Agile declined comment for this story.

The deal was supposed to go before the state budget committee for final approval in December, but it did not end up on the agenda amid the behind-the-scenes controversy.

Now, the fate of the deal is uncertain.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 30, 2017 09:51 AM
Posted to Indiana Government