Otter signs $8 million broadband settlement bill

Gov. Butch Otter has approved an $8 million plan to try to clean up after the Idaho Education Network contract debacle.

Safety Bill Signing Otter
Gov. Butch Otter

Otter signed Senate Bill 1428 — which earmarked $8 million that could be used to settle with vendors on the mothballed high school broadband system.

The money now goes into a fund controlled by House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, who have been negotiating with network vendors Education Networks of America and CenturyLink. Both have filed tort claims seeking back payments on the project; Bedke and Hill have said the vendors’ legal claims could reach $11 million.

The settlement plan emerged in the final days of the 2016 legislative session, passing the House just minutes before lawmakers adjourned for the year.

Otter’s decision comes as little surprise. During a news conference last week, Otter said he supported the idea of pursuing a settlement. And he said the state should seek a deal with network vendors — even though the project’s $60 million contract has been declared void, and the Supreme Court says the state is now legally obligated to demand money back from project vendors.

On Monday, Otter also signed a pair of bills addressing the Idaho Education Network mess:

  • One bill would provide $971,000 to Syringa Networks — the Internet vendor that successfully sued the state over the restructured Idaho Education Network contract. The money for Syringa’s legal fees was tucked into a spending bill that will also inject $2 million into the state’s Constitutional Defense Fund, which the state has tapped to bankroll several high-profile and unsuccessful legal appeals.
  • The second spending bill sets aside $2.7 million for school broadband project grants.

The broadband spending decisions come amidst public sniping over the demise of the project. Otter has said Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office supported the ill-fated decision to rewrite and split the project contract; Wasden disputes that claim. (For the backstory, here’s are links to my recent analysis piece, an in-depth “Idaho Reports’” interview with Wasden, and a fact check from the Associated Press.)

Otter is working his way through the pile of bills left behind by the 2016 Idaho Legislature. He has signed all seven K-12 budget bills, as well as budget bills funding the $9.1 million literacy initiative and the $2 million STEM Education Fund.

But late Tuesday, Otter vetoed one controversial education measure — the Bible-in-schools bill. Click here for our full story.