Center honors policymaker for his work to improve rural broadband, meat processing

Farm and Food
Small Towns

When Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth ran for the Nebraska Legislature in 2018, improving broadband service in rural areas was one of the issues at the top of his priority list.

But, his first attempt at addressing improvements was unsuccessful, as a bill he drafted in conjunction with the Center for Rural Affairs during the 2019 session did not make it out of committee.

The setback, however, didn’t deter the senator and Center staff and, looking back, Sen. Brandt saw it as a good thing because a new piece of legislation introduced the following year—Legislative Bill 996—was “much, much better.”

Designated as his priority bill during the 2020 session, LB 996 created the Broadband Data Improvement Program. The program was designed to help ensure the state is able to fully access federal broadband grant programs by complying with data verification requirements set forth by the Federal Communications Commission. That bill went on to receive unanimous approval from the Legislature and was signed into law last summer. 

Now, LB 388, prepared by Gov. Pete Ricketts and Speaker Mike Hilgers, is relying on the Broadband Data Improvement Program as a primary tool when determining which areas of rural Nebraska should be eligible for broadband access funds. The impact of LB 996 continues to grow. 

For his work in championing improvements to rural broadband, as well as previous efforts to remove regulations for value-added food producers and promote transparency in government, the Center recently awarded Brandt its 2020 George Norris Policymaker Award, given to a policymaker who employs bipartisanship, compromise, and consensus to improve policy outcomes for family farms and rural communities.

“Sen. Brandt shares our values and priorities,” said Johnathan Hladik, policy director with the Center for Rural Affairs. “He has been a tremendous partner during his time in office and his commitment to rural communities is unmatched.”

Brandt said he first learned of the Center’s work in the 1990s and, on occasion, has given a financial contribution.

“I always thought they did good work and I always felt if you want good work to continue, you should give a little financial support and just be supportive, in general, of what they do,” he said. 

As a lawmaker, he continues to see the value of organizations, such as the Center, that focus on rural issues.

“Now that I'm in the Legislature, I can see a lot of our money goes into large, urban communities,” he said. “There’s not a lot of cash that goes out to rural communities for economic development and, in particular, to small and disadvantaged business people.”

This session, Brandt’s work with the Center continues with the introduction of LB 324. The legislation, which advanced to final reading this week, would create the Independent Processor Assistance Program, which provides a roadmap for increasing local processing capacity and expanding market access for small producers. It would also ease the process for the consumer who wishes to purchase individual packages of meat directly from the producer or processor and allow the producer and consumer more flexibility when deciding where their meat is processed.

Brought to the forefront to address issues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Brandt said, LB 324 is a good example of how lawmakers, organizations, and constituents can work together to address important issues facing the state. He commended the work by Johnathan, which included analyzing state and federal law, helping develop legislative language, setting up a phone call with the representative who championed a similar bill in Wyoming, and lining up supporters. 

“We probably had 10 proponents and a lot of those are because of the Center,” the senator said.

Sen. Brandt, who represents District 32, which includes Fillmore, Jefferson, Saline, Thayer, and southwest Lancaster counties, said he was surprised and humbled to learn he had been chosen for the award.

“I want to thank everybody involved for thinking of me,” he said.

Feature photos:
Top: Center Policy Director Johnathan Hladik presents Sen. Tom Brandt with the 2020 George Norris Policymaker Award | Courtesy photo 

Bottom: Sen. Brandt is joined by Center staff and supporters Chuck Karpf, Johnathan Hladik, Mike Tabbert, Trenton Buhr, and Mark Metcalf following a hearing on Legislative Bill 966 during the 2020 session of the Nebraska Legislature. | Photo by Teresa Hoffman