JFAC budgets $6.6 million for broadband

Cameron
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert

Legislative budget-writers agreed to pay this year’s bills for the cash-strapped Idaho Education Network broadband program.

The $6.6 million may be put on a fast track — to preserve a broadband system serving 90,000 students across Idaho. But it’s unclear what will happen after June 30, when the school year ends and the state budget year draws to a close.

“Stay tuned for how we handle 2015,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, after Monday morning’s vote. “It’s another battle, another discussion.”

On Monday, the budget-writers agreed to free up $6.6 million to keep the broadband system afloat through June 30. The money would go to Education Networks of America, the state’s broadband contractor, and replace federally administered “e-rate” funding that has been on hold for nearly a year.

And the $6.6 million budget may come with something of a deadline attached. Contractors and Gov. Butch Otter’s staff have indicated the broadband system could go dark, said Cameron, if the state does not pick up the funding slack by March 1.

“I think it’s a little bit of a hollow threat,” Cameron told Idaho Education News, but he believes legislative leadership will try to pass the funding bill in the next few days.

But the money would come with some strings attached — legislative “intent language” that illustrates budget-writers’ frustrations with the long-simmering broadband funding crisis:

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  • ENA must agree to return any and all of the $6.6 million, immediately, if and when it receives “e-rate” funding.
  • If ENA returns any of this money, the state’s Department of Administration must agree to transfer the revenue back to the state general fund immediately.
  • The state and ENA must rewrite their contract, acknowledging that the $6.6 million does not constitute an “acknowledgement of any liability” on the state’s part.

Cameron acknowledged that the contractors may be uneasy about reopening contract language. But he said the state is making a “responsible” request that would ensure contractors aren’t paid twice for the same service.

Garry Lough, ENA’s Idaho director of customer service, was not immediately available for comment Monday morning.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, remain frustrated as they try to seek answers over the broadband funding mess.

“We’re almost a year into when this issue happened,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC’s co-chairperson.

The funding issue came to a head on Jan. 30, when Department of Administration chief Teresa Luna first alerted lawmakers to the $14.45 million budget hole. Contractors, including ENA, receive “e-rate” dollars from landline and cell phone bills, administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company, a federal contractor. But this money, accounting for about three-fourths of the Idaho Education Network budget, has been on hold since March, as USAC reviews the network’s 2009 contract.

The $6.6 million constitutes most, but not all, of the $7.15 million Otter sought for Idaho Education Network for 2013-14. Budget-writers declined to reimburse the remaining $550,000 — money the Department of Administration has already paid contractors to replace “e-rate” funds.

Still, Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said the $6.6 million represents an “important first step” in breaking the funding impasse.

The Department of Administration was not consulted on the budget committee’s intent language, and is reviewing it. But the department is “pleased to have a path forward” for the rest of 2013-14, spokeswoman Jennifer Pike said Monday.

More reading: More from this morning’s budget hearing, from the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell.