House approves $8 million broadband settlement bill

In the penultimate vote of the 2016 legislative session, the House set $8 million aside to try to settle legal claims in the Idaho Education Network case.

The money will go into a legal fund controlled by House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill. Bedke and Hill would like to continue to pursue a settlement with Education Networks of America and CenturyLink, two vendors on the mothballed high school broadband system — and perhaps head off legal claims of $11 million.

Bedke, 3.25.16
House Speaker Scott Bedke took the unusual step of vacating the speaker’s podium to debate Friday for the $8 million Idaho Education Network settlement bill. The budget passed, 54-15.

The 54-15 vote came after a brief debate that at times became personal.

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, debated against the $8 million earmark, saying she would prefer to see lawmakers pay off any settlement when they return in January. King was the only member of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to oppose the $8 million bill in committee, calling it a “slush fund.”

From the speaker’s podium, Bedke chastised Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, for echoing King’s “slush fund” comment.

When Scott suggested she feared political retribution if she voted not to fund the speaker’s bill, Bedke took the unusual step of vacating the speaker’s chair to debate the bill.

Bedke dismissed the suggestion of political payback as “folly.” He also said it’s in the state’s best interest to pursue a settlement, as opposed to sitting back and letting the process play out in court.

“There’s no political exposure to anybody that way,” said Bedke. “You just blame the court.”

In the end, Bedke convinced Scott, and only four Republicans opposed the bill: Reps. Judy Boyle of Midvale, James Holtzclaw of Meridian, Paul Shepherd of Riggins and Gayle Batt of Wilder. Batt is not seeking re-election.

On Thursday, Boyle used a procedural objection to block a vote on the settlement bill. The House put the issue on hold until this morning’s vote.

If Gov. Butch Otter signs Senate Bill 1428 into law, the $8 million would go from the state’s general fund to the Legislative Legal Defense Fund, which is controlled by Bedke and Hill. The fund is usually used to cover legal fees, and Bedke said it was unusual to use the fund for a possible settlement.

ENA and CenturyLink were the lead vendors on the Idaho Education Network, which was mothballed after a district judge voided the $60 million project contract. During the legal dispute, the state cut off payments to the vendors.

Both vendors filed tort claims in March 2015, seeking back payments and interest. A tort claim is a precursor to a potential lawsuit.

The vote on SB 1428 came late Friday morning. At 12:10 p.m. Friday, the House adjourned sine die, bringing the 75-day session to a conclusion.

The Senate adjourned for the year on Thursday night.