Bowling advocates for rural broadband, small towns in Senate

By Linda Bryant

Janice Bowling’s friends call her the “Energizer Bunny,” and most people would likely agree with that nickname after chatting with the spirited state senator for a few minutes.
The Republican represents District 16, which encompasses Coffee, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie, Van Buren, and Warren counties. She was elected for her first term in 2012 and for a second term in 2016.
Once she stepped into the chambers of Legislative Plaza, Bowling quickly became an effective — and notably tenacious — elected official, known for pushing hard for issues important to her constituents. She jumped into leadership positions on key committees and recently stepped into a prominent new role as deputy speaker of the Tennessee State Senate.
Bowling’s leadership skills didn’t pop up overnight. She honed them as a long-serving alderwoman and community volunteer in Tullahoma. She has been a longtime champion for rural broadband in Tennessee, passionately fighting for the cause for almost two decades and gathering expertise and experience along the way.
Bowling says effective leadership is often the result of nurturing and maintaining good relationships.
“In today’s hurry-hurry-hurry world with it’s instant this and instant that, I feel very strongly that we need to take time to develop relationships,” Bowling said. “Just having coffee with someone or being able to look them in the eye or just sitting down for few minutes and talking with them can make the difference. We’ve got to learn to listen to each other.”
Iris Rudder, a county commissioner in Franklin County and candidate for state representative in the 39th District, sees Bowling as a critical role model.
“Through my whole journey Janice has been by my side always offering her support and encouragement,” Rudder said. “She is my mentor, and I hope I am blessed to get to work with her in Nashville. She is the kind of person that is always willing to help a friend. But more importantly, she doesn’t have to know you to help or give you advice. Her passion for reaching out to others is evidenced by the fact that she is the only senator to have ‘listening tours’ in the districts she represents.
“I think her passion for helping others, whether it be through supporting good policy, giving advice, helping a constituent get a problem solved or just taking time to return a phone call to a friend after a long day in session, is what makes the special person that she is,” said Rudder.

TT&C: Tell us about your background. You have a long history as a community activist in the Tullahoma region. Are you from the area?
JB: I actually grew up in Alabama. I met my husband when we both attended Auburn University. I was majoring in education, and he was majoring in business. This all took place in the Vietnam era. Right after graduation, my husband went on to graduate school, and we married that August. The first year of our marriage I taught at Smith Station a little country school in Lee County, Ala. My degree was in special education. I had experiences there that I still treasure. I was able to make a positive difference in the lives of the 12 young men ages 12 to 16.
We then moved from Auburn, Ala., to where my husband was stationed at Lindberg Air Force Base in California. We had our first child out there. But my husband’s real goal in life was to get back to SEC football. We were able to get an assignment at Arnold Engineering Development Center [‘near Tullahoma], and we were transferred there. We had our second child about one year later.
We were really smitten with Tennessee. We loved the people, the work ethic, and the can-do attitude. So we thoughtfully determined that we should make our home in Tennessee and put down some roots. If felt like a wonderful and noble ambition. We thank the Lord that we were able to stay in Tullahoma and become part of that community.

TT&C: Clearly, you fell in love with the Tullahoma region. What makes it so special?
JB: Tullahoma is unique compared to other small towns in Tennessee because so many of the people there came here because of work at Arnold Engineering complex. It’s the world’s largest ground test facility, so when I say I live among rocket scientists, I literally do.
Our children were blessed to grow up here. Most of the other kids’ parents were engineers of one sort or another. I raised my family here during what was a really unique time to be at a world-class facility with so much going on in the way of ground testing weapon systems for the government. My husband became director of contracts at Arnold, which is a multibillion-dollar complex. He was very busy because he also had a reserved commission in the Air Force. He was working as a civil servant but retired in 1999 as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
When the children were young, we decided that I was going to be a stay-home mom and a community volunteer. I used my degree in education for volunteer work with adult skills for people with mental handicaps. My husband was on the school board. In the 80s I was able to homeschool my youngest son. I was somewhat of a pioneer since there weren’t many people homeschooling back then. I’m sure it raised a few eyebrows because my husband was on the school board. But I feel like parents have to do what they know is best for each child. When he scored 99.9 on the L-SAT he sent me a thank you note for being the best teacher he ever had. I cried all the way to the frame store where I cut the note in half so I could see both sides and then had it framed.

TT&C: How did you segue into public service and local politics?
JB: We were very involved in the community. We were involved in church and in a prayer group. I also got involved with women Republicans. Some people encouraged me to run for alderman. There were six people running for two seats, and I was elected. That was from 1991 to 2008, and I served for 15 years. It was an honor and a privilege to serve the community, and I learned a lot about how local government interfaces with the state government.

TT&C: From 1996-2000 you were the district director of the 11 Middle Tennessee counties that make up Congressional District 4. What was that like for you?
JB: Every month I would go to each of the counties and meet with people in the courthouse, all sorts of different groups and individuals that had town hall meetings. That’s when I really got to see how the federal government interfaces with local government and how they should work together cooperatively.
During this period of time, I began to learn about [rural access to] broadband. In those 11 counties back in the 90s you couldn’t even get a cell phone. It was an entirely different world back then. Computers weren’t much more than word processors. In 1999, I got directly involved with the broadband issue. I was able to see the need in rural Tennessee to make sure that we had the infrastructure for broadband and fiber going into the 21st century.

TT&C: In January 2018 you were named as deputy speaker of the state Senate, the first woman to have held this position. What does this position mean to you?
JB: It was an unexpected honor, and I’m really grateful to Lt. Gov. [Randy] McNally for selecting me. In my role, I’m supposed to represent Tennessee for events and meetings within the state, the region, or the United States if there are situations where governmental people are coming together. I can be a designee to represent the state. I’m really enjoying the opportunity to talk and meet with other leaders.
My passions, whether for broadband, helping emergency response officials or farmers’ rights, is making sure that the voices of rural Tennesseans are heard. The ratio of representation grows larger and larger in urban Tennessee. That ratio has always been about 60 percent rural and 40 percent urban, but it’s now inverted and is more like 75 percent urban and 25 percent rural. It’s only going to grow larger. That’s just one reason why we need access to high speed broadband in rural Tennessee. You can develop more workforces in these areas with a 21st century infrastructure.
For example, there’s a business that started up in Winchester that writes software for international customers. They have to have a legacy provider [traditional company such as Comcast or AT&T], which means they could be in the middle of a very important conversation and the call could be dropped. They would give anything to have fiber in downtown Winchester. I’m working on that!

TT&C: About 34 percent of Tennesseans are living without access to minimum standards of internet connectivity. You have been a long-time proponent of getting rural Tennessee access to faster internet and an advocate for cities and municipalities to develop their own municipal internet provider networks. It appears that advocates of rural broadband have made progress, but are still working to change policies and get these services to all areas of the state. Can you catch us up? How is Tennessee doing with rural broadband?
JB: I have actually been working on this issue for 19 years. And I will say that all the major corporations have had 18 years of first refusal to take a greater infrastructure anywhere in rural Tennessee. Unfortunately, their business models don’t allow them to go into those areas that are so sparsely populated. I have a strong conviction that high-quality broadband and internet should be available in rural areas. In today’s world, the people who live in rural Tennessee can no longer be held hostage to a giant corporation’s business model. We have to be allowed to provide for ourselves when they have demonstrated that their model does not allow them to provide for us.
I’m happy to say there are 10 towns in Tennessee now that are called fiber-optic communities, including Tullahoma, Morristown, Bristol, Jackson, Pulaski, Chattanooga, Clarksville, and a few more in the process.
The governor passed legislation last year, the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, that opened the door for the electric co-ops to retail and bundle these services. At first, they weren’t going to let them bundle the services. It helps to have one provider because people want to get service for telephone, internet and TV from one place. With fiber you can do voice over internet, you can stream video, you can watch Hulu, and you don’t even have to have cable anymore. A lot of people, particularly the younger generation, don’t want a landline, and they don’t want cable television. They prefer buying what they want when they want it. So cable TV and landlines are no longer a necessity. High-speed broadband is increasing in its need. So, many our rural and small communities need it for their economic development.

TT&C: Can you talk about the benefits you’ve seen in Tullahoma with LightTUBe, your community broadband network?
JB: It’s given us a leg up in many important ways. When the recession happened, Tullahoma grew two and a half times the rate that other cities of its size. Much of the economic development occurred because we had fiber. We have been able to attract and keep businesses because of it. Not only were we able to survive, we thrived.

TT&C: You recently sponsored a bill, SB 1045, that would have allowed municipal electric utilities such as Chattanooga’s EPB, Tullahoma Utilities Board or the Jackson Energy Authority to expand beyond their electric service area. The bill did not advance. It would have reclaimed local authority for municipalities that want to offer telecommunications service either alone or with a partner. What is your ultimate goal as you continue to fight for further local control of broadband and internet services?
JB: I want to get to the point where the people of Tennessee have options and choices and no state regulatory restrictions. If they want to use fiber, that’s an option. If they want to use wireless, that’s an option, and if they want to use satellite, that’s an option. Even if they want DSL and coaxial, that’s an option.

TT&C: Do the issues and topics you’re passionate about have an overarching theme?
JB: Of the people, by the people, and for the people! I want to make sure that the government does not become a hindrance for the people in earning a living, educating their children and having medical care. It all has to do with making government smaller and more responsive to people.
In Tennessee, the three constitutional mandates for state government are education, transportation, and public safety, and they are all important to me. We need access to 21st century infrastructure. And when it comes to transportation if you have the information highway throughout all the small parts of Tennessee, people will be able to telecommute and conduct telemedicine. You’d have access to communication tools and you could keep some of the traffic off the traditional road systems. In other words, the Information Highway with fiber can assist us in not having so much wheel traffic on the roads.

TT&C: What is the proper dynamic between local, state, and federal government?
JB: We have to work within the structure of the law, and communication is critical to making it work smoothly. When I say the law, I mean there’s an inverse relationship between the state and the federal government and the state and the local government. The state creates the federal government. The states came together and created the federal government. And for those of us that are more federalist, we think there needs to be more powers held by the state than by the federal government.
I learned this as an alderman. It is also true that cities came together. The states were founded and made the cities. They give them their charters. When you really look at it, you realize that the state is the hub. When the federal government is going out for the state, they are also going out for the towns and communities and the counties from the state.
[At the state level] we are representing our communities, towns and counties. We have to be in communication with those people, those governments and those elected officials on a regular basis in order to make certain that as a state we are recognizing needs and issues. And in the final analysis, the state makes laws that affect all the towns and communities. We just have to make sure that we don’t overreach, and that we aren’t creating hardship for people.

TT&C: What are your biggest challenges?
JB: The biggest challenge right now is making certain that I can interface with the state and with my constituents in seven rural counties. Making sure that I’m accessible to the people and that I’m knowledgeable enough to study any particular issue, sometimes a personal issue and sometimes a systemic issue. I have to make sure I’m working well with the people and governmental agencies, and that I’m carrying legislation that’s helping people.
In 2015, I carried the legislation that repealed the Intractable Pain Act of 2001. That was the legislation on the pill mills and pain clinics in my rural counties. It took away legal cover which was allowing them to be so numerous in rural Tennessee. We had more pill mills than we had grocery stores. Continuing to get these kinds of things done is important to me.
We need to recognize our emergency first responders. In Tennessee 70 percent of the firemen are volunteers. We need to incentivize and motivate — at least let them know that if they should pay the ultimate price, the state of Tennessee we’ll come in with $250,000 for five years to help the family as they adjust. I care about victims’ rights. We have to be sure not to ignore crime victims as we try to alleviate and eliminate a lot of the things that cause people to commit crimes. If everybody’s going around doing what they want without consequences, you just have anarchy.

TT&C: Do you have any final thoughts about how the state is doing and how to meet those goals?
JB: I think the state is doing great, but I think there’s always room for improvement. Tennesseans have a drive to make things even better. To do that, we have to realize that we’re not just a business but a public delivery system. The main delivery system we have is education, transportation, and public safety. We have to make sure that all the encompassing areas are deliberate to each zip code — and with equity.
We can’t have Tennessee [make a good impression] just on the interstates. We have to make sure we’re taking care of our beautiful backroads, hearing the voice of the farmer and the voice of the merchant and the educator. All of these voices need to be heard as we work together to make this a better place for our children and our grandchildren.