Priorities in the broadband budget debate

Funding broadband in Idaho high schools is at least a $7.3 million question facing the 2014 Legislature.

And the outcome of the debate may hinge on lawmakers’ sense of priorities.

Sen. Dean Cameron, the co-chairman of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, wants lawmakers to look beyond the Idaho Education Network infrastructure itself.

Hill.Bedke, 2.24.14
Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, foreground, and House Speaker Scott Bedke address reporters Monday.

The idea isn’t just to install broadband in high schools, he says. The idea is to provide more educational services in the classrooms. So, asks Cameron, R-Rupert, how much new content is being offered to the schools, from sources such as the Idaho Digital Learning Academy? And what kind of educational services would still be offered — if the state moves away from the Idaho Education Network, and selects a new broadband delivery system, or systems?

House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill see the issue somewhat differently.

Bedke concedes some of the points that have had JFAC members fuming for almost a month. Lawmakers are frustrated and “grumpy,” he says, because the Idaho Education Network’s budgeting process should have been more transparent. But he believes the network, serving some 90,000 high school students statewide, is helping to meet the state’s constitutional mandate to provide a uniform education system. Now that lawmakers have been presented a multimillion dollar bill to keep the system online, Bedke is concerned about continuity.

“I don’t see us walking away from this state-of-the-art delivery system that we have,” Bedke, R-Oakley, said at an Idaho Press Club-sponsored luncheon Monday. “There’s pipe in the ground, and that’s owned by a company.”

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Said Hill, R-Rexburg: “We’ve had this shock now. Let’s sit down now and reason through it.”

So what emerges as the Legislature’s top priority? Is it maintaining the current broadband contract and infrastructure in place past the end of the 2013-14 school year, and the end of the 2013-14 budget year? Or is it taking a longer look at the system — and whether the state has better and more cost-effective options for the long term?

That may be a simplification. But it’s probably also a window into the debate over the future of the Idaho Education Network.

More reading: Budget-writers approve a $6.6 million short-term funding fix for the Idaho Education Network.