State seeks new funding for Pence’s bicentennial projects

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Indiana officials face starting over on deciding how to pay for some major projects that Vice President Mike Pence proposed while he was governor to mark last year's state bicentennial.

The dilemma comes after new Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said Thursday that he was terminating a tentative deal with Ohio-based Agile Networks to lease the state's cellphone towers for potentially $260 million over 50 years. Holcomb said the deal the Pence administration announced in September never materialized, and he is leaning toward rebidding it.

Pence proposed in 2015 to use the lease money toward projects costing more than $50 million, including a new state archives building in Indianapolis and an inn for Potato Creek State Park near South Bend. Work hasn't started yet on those projects.

Lease money was also targeted for a $2 million plaza at the Indiana Statehouse and a $2.5 million education center at the state library, which have been completed.

Holcomb said he hoped to decide on rebidding the cell tower lease by the end of March.

"The projects that would have benefited from this revenue source are worthy projects, and I'd like to see them come to fruition," he said. "How we get there needs to be reviewed."

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said he agreed with Holcomb's decision but wasn't sure on funding for the proposed projects.

"Perhaps some of the projects that haven't commenced yet, if we can't find an appropriate way to pay for those . they may have to go on hold for a while," Bosma said.

The Pence administration touted the deal with Agile Networks leasing space on 340 state-owned cell towers as one that would expand high-speed internet access in rural areas. But it drew opposition from the state's cable and broadband trade groups, which represent companies such as AT&T,

Comcast and Time Warner, because the deal would've also allowed Agile to use the state's fiber network.

A spokesman for Agile didn't immediately return messages seeking comment Friday.

Holcomb, who was Pence's lieutenant governor, declined to criticize the tentative deal while saying it "needs to be thought through again."

"I want to stress that enhancing broadband availability, especially in rural parts of our state, is still an important part of our consideration," he said.

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