SAN LUIS VALLEY — Serving as a Democratic United States senator representing a purple state where three out of four counties are designated as rural but the remaining one out of four has tremendous political clout might be considered a tough row to hoe. Nonetheless, Senator Michael Bennet has been doing it for more than a decade, punctuating each year with frequent listening tours conducted by both Bennet and his staff.
So, when Senator Bennet came by the Valley Courier while visiting the San Luis Valley earlier this week, the most obvious question also seemed the best one to ask.
What concerns has the senator been hearing?
Without hesitating, Bennet jumped into the conversation with both feet, citing the lack of access to broadband in the valley as a big concern. Although he’s often described as “pragmatic”, Bennet speaks with an almost youthful energy, and his passion for solving the broadband issue bordered on palpable, despite the mask he wore and the tight time schedule he was on.
“I just met with 14 school district superintendents. I’ve had conversations with principals, teachers and families since March. They have deep, deep concerns about the lack of broadband for their kids. I heard that from a superintendent this morning. There’s the issue of literal, physical access to broadband, but if it’s not affordable whereas what you can afford doesn’t have the speed that you need, it’s not good for anybody either. And hardware, too. Maybe people have one Chrome book, but they have three or four kids that have to share it.”
It should be noted that Michael Bennet was the superintendent of Denver schools before going into politics.
“I’ve been in this job for 11 years. I’ve heard this constant…worry…that we’re shutting out rural communities from the economy and rural kids from education. And…look. If you live in a country where some kids have access to broadband and other kids don’t, it’s tantamount in the 21st century to living in a country where some kids have access to textbooks and other kids don’t. We have to solve that.”
As he describes it, the federal government has spent $50 billion -- “that’s with a ‘b’” – ostensibly to build out rural broadband in America, but what it’s been instead is a massive subsidy to the incumbent telecom providers. “It hasn’t gotten to people on the ground, and it’s never at the speed it needs to be done. Even the FCC maps are flawed.”
In July, years of conversations about broadband -- amplified by disparities revealed during COVID -- caused Bennet to introduce his BRIDGE ACT (Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy) that he says “changes all that” by providing flexible funding to states and tribal governments to deploy “future proof” broadband networks. The bill has been introduced but has not made it to the Senate floor as of yet.
Bennet has also heard from farmers who are “deeply concerned with the drought and the state of the water table in the valley” and was scheduled to listen to folks with local concerns about the housing shortage and the eviction crisis, an issue that Bennet says – almost as a side note – he and Republican Senator Rob Portman addressed in December of 2019 when introducing the Eviction Crisis Act of 2019, three full months before eviction was a reality for thousands of Americans. And, of course, he’s heard from people who are worried about businesses closing.
For just the briefest of moments, his voice sounds subdued. “It’s a hard time.”
At that point, Bennet goes to the bigger, underlying picture.
“The federal government has spent the last quarter of a century neglecting and ignoring rural America. We’re at a point where we have to decide if we’re going to even have a rural America. You can’t do that without rural hospitals, rural schools or rural airports. And that requires a different kind of funding than urban communities do..”
It should come as no surprise by now that Senator Bennet, with Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, has also introduced the American Family Act that dramatically increased the child tax credit, cutting childhood poverty overall by 40% in one year, including 52% for Latino kids and 50% for kids who are African American. And it would be an “enormous” tax credit for people living in the San Luis Valley. Presidential candidate Joe Biden recently announced the inclusion of Bennet’s tax policy in his platform.
But Bennet emphasizes the importance of making an investment in America, most notably rural America, a priority instead of what’s been done for the last 20 years, “which is to borrow $5 trillion from the Chinese to give tax breaks for the richest people in America at a time when our income inequality is the greatest it’s been since 1928. Or borrowing $5 trillion from the Chinese to pay for two wars in the Middle East that have lasted for 20 years. Those are completely misplaced priorities.”
Ever the pragmatic optimist, Bennet continues. “The good news is that our priorities have been so misplaced that if we stopped following those priorities, we could invest in rural America in meaningful ways. Water infrastructure, health care infrastructure, broadband, education and changing our tax codes dramatically to give communities like Alamosa and the valley more purchasing power.”
There was time for just one more question. The $64,000 question, if you will. Or, more likely, the $1200 one. Can families and businesses expect any further stimulus funding and support?
“It’s possible still, even now, that we might get it done before the election – and we should do it now. But that’s totally dependent upon Trump. If we don’t do it now, there’s a very good chance we’ll have to do it after the election.”
And, yes, Bennet has written a bill for that, too. It’s called the RESTART Act, has 57 co-sponsors, includes forgivable loans and “would give businesses in the valley working capital for the next six months and at least get them through the winter.” The senator’s goal has been to get RESTART included in the next COVID relief bill.
It would appear that Senator Bennet has, indeed, been listening. And he’s been doing something about what he’s heard.