JFAC cautious about broadband request

A week after getting hit with a surprise $14.45 million bill for high school broadband service, legislative budget-writers are trying to figure out their next move.

Gov. Butch Otter is pushing for the money — designed to keep the Idaho Education Network afloat through June 30, 2015. But lawmakers are sifting through contracts in order to understand the budget snafu, and the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has not scheduled a hearing to take up the request.

“We’re not going to bring it up until all the questions are answered,” Sen. Dean Cameron, JFAC co-chairman, said Wednesday. “And I would say that we’re not at that point yet.”

Teresa Luna, director of Otter’s Department of Administration, made the $14.45 million request last week. She said the state’s broadband contractor, Education Networks of America, hasn’t received federal payments since March. This “e-rate” money is collected from landline and cell phone consumers and administered through the Federal Communications Commission. E-rate accounts for roughly 75 percent of the state’s broadband project, but the money is on hold, due to an ongoing lawsuit over the broadband contract.

‘Spoon-fed details’

Luna’s basic argument is that the state has prevailed in lower courts, and the $14.45 million constitutes a bridge loan that will be repaid when the e-rate money flows again. Cameron — a Rupert Republican and the Senate’s senior member — is not convinced. “It’s like we’ve been spoon-fed details.”

By no means is Cameron alone. Luna’s explanation was met with scorn and skepticism from Republicans and Democrats alike — and those feelings haven’t dissipated.

“I was not satisfied with the information furnished in the JFAC presentation,” said Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls. “I am not comfortable with the funding request under the current circumstances and information.”

“I am at a loss as to why we were not notified earlier about the situation,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, a Caldwell Republican and JFAC vice chairman.

“I hope the citizens of Idaho can get some clarity on this mess,” said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, who fears that the state could be on the hook to reimburse back e-rate payments if the state Supreme Court voids the broadband contract.

“I would like to know more about who first learned that the e-rate payments were not coming in, and how much time elapsed prior to the Department of Administration and JFAC chairs being informed,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow.

Still, at least one JFAC member is ready to move.

“I think that my questions have been answered by now,” said Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood. “I would support the request because the providers need to be paid.”

Short-term decision, long-term implications

Despite the questions raised in the past week, funding the broadband project may be a foregone conclusion. Budget-writers don’t appear inclined to pull the plug on a network that reaches every corner of the state, providing high-speed connectivity to nearly 90,000 students in 131 school districts and charters.

“It would be foolish to take out our frustration on those who are using the system,” said JFAC’s co-chair, Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.

It even appears that budget-writers will simply act on Otter’s recommendation, taking the $14.45 million out of the $29.3 million he had earmarked for the Public Education Stabilization Fund, the rainy-day account dedicated to K-12. This idea is drawing broad-based interest from the likes of Sen. Cliff Bayer, a conservative Republican from Boise, and Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise.

Still, the current controversy clouds a long-term question: Should the Idaho Education Network expand its reach to elementary and middle schools? King supports the expansion. Bolz says the state might need to put off the undertaking.

Cameron, meanwhile, isn’t sure how the committee might fall. On the one hand, Cameron knows Otter’s education reform task force unanimously recommended installing broadband in all schools, and he’s hard-pressed to imagine anyone opposing the concept. On the other hand, he says the e-rate mess has shaken lawmakers’ confidence in the way the existing program is being managed.

And that, he says, leaves the state “mired” in the lingering controversy over the broadband contract.

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