House passes broadband funding bill

A $6.6 million proposal to keep the high school broadband Internet program up and running sailed through the House on Friday morning.

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Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome

With no debate to speak of, lawmakers voted 66-1 to approve House Bill 550.

Rep. Maxine Bell, co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said HB 550 would keep the Idaho Education Network running through June 30.

The funding problem came to a head in January, when budget-writers learned federal “e-rate” payments are in limbo.

The “e-rate” funds, collected on telephone bills, typical cover about 75 percent of the program budget. But the funding source abruptly dried up amid disputes and a lawsuit involving the 2009 broadband contract. A federal contractor, the Universal Service Administrative Company, cut payments off last year while it reviews the contract.

“Some way or another, everything stopped,” Bell said. “We don’t know exactly why and, frankly, we didn’t know when it stopped, but the schools continue to use the equipment.”

Even with the $6.6 million, funding uncertainties cloud the program’s future. Gov. Butch Otter is seeking $7.3 million to fund the program next year.

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“Let’s keep Education Networks of America paying their bills, lets keep the Idaho Education Network providing our service for schools and we will deal with something else another day,” Bell said.

The broadband services reaches more than 90,000 Idaho students.

Reps. Sharon McMillan, R-Silverton, and Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, originally voted against the funding proposal Friday, but moments later Stevenson received approval to change her “no” vote to a vote in support.

The bill moves to the Senate.

Click here for an in-depth breakdown of the technology budget conflicts facing lawmakers as they try to wrap up the legislative session by March 21 – a deadline that appears in jeopardy.