Lawmakers bail out Pence with $5.5M for bicentennial projects

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Indiana lawmakers are bailing out the state's former governor, Vice President Mike Pence, after the Republican's efforts to pay for two completed projects celebrating the state's bicentennial foundered.

A provision tucked into the state's next two-year budget, which was approved late last month by the GOP-dominated Legislature, sets aside $5.5 million to pay for an elaborate plaza constructed outside the Statehouse in Indianapolis and upgrades to the state library.

"They did the work, so somebody had to pay for it," said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who is one of the state's lead budget writers.

Still, funding for the rest of the $53.5 million in projects Pence planned to celebrate Indiana's 200th year has not materialized, including financing for a new state archives building and money to build an inn at northern Indiana's Potato Creek State Park. It's unclear when—or if—the state will move forward with those projects, which have been on hold for more than a year.

Lawmakers were skeptical when Pence first pitched the plan in 2015, with Kenley questioning "if we could afford a bicentennial." Pence won them over after proposing to pay for the projects by leasing out 340 state-owned cellphone towers through a public-private partnership.

But one year later, Pence was still struggling to make his plan work. He even declined an offer of help from Kenley, who proposed shifting money from a revenue stream used to pay for some of Pence's other priorities.

Then last September, Pence touted a new 25-year deal with Agile Networks that his administration said would expand high-speed internet access in rural areas, while bringing in $50 million for the state upfront.

But that drew opposition from the state's cable and broadband trade groups, which represent companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner, because it would've allowed Agile—a competitor—to get a leg up and use the state's fiber network.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, Pence's successor, pulled the plug on the tentative plan shortly after taking office this year.

Rep. Greg Porter, the Democrats' point person on the budget, said Pence was counting on "magic money that didn't appear."

"I knew it was highly suspect because it took so long to develop," said Porter, of Indianapolis. "He planned for a party, had the party and didn't have anybody to pay for it."

A spokesman for Pence did not respond to a request for comment.

Kenley said the agreement with Agile ended up being more complicated than it initially appeared and could have negatively impacted local companies.

"The subject matter was more complicated than we initially expected it to be," he said.

It would have granted extensive control of state property to Agile, which would have been in charge of managing and operating the towers. That could have required competitors to reveal confidential business plans when seeking right-of-way approval from Agile to use state lands.

"On the face of it, it was anti-competitive to my members," said John Koppin, president of the Indiana Broadband and Technology Association, which represents AT&T and CenturyLink, among others.

Kenley and Holcomb said they hope to come up with a workable alternative in the future. In a memo, Holcomb administration officials said that the governor intends to "manage the individual leases on towers ourselves instead of seeking proposals for third-party managers."

They also hope revenues from a new deal will finally fund the projects Pence first proposed.

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