Broadband funding remains in flux

(UPDATED, 8:21 a.m., with clarification from JFAC vice chairman Darrell Bolz.)

Expansion of the statewide broadband system is on hold for this year.

Meanwhile, a $7.3 million plan to replace federally administered funding for the Idaho Education Network is cin limbo.

On Wednesday, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted only to maintain existing state funding for the network — a broadband system serving some 90,000 students. With the 19-0 vote, JFAC did not act on two requests from Gov. Butch Otter and the state Department of Administration: a $7.3 million request to replace Idaho Education Network funding in 2014-15, and a $1,096,700 general fund request to expand the network into the state’s elementary and middle schools.

Budget-writers weren’t on the same page about the future of the expansion plan, in the wake of Wednesday’s vote.

JFAC co-chairman Sen. Dean Cameron said the expansion won’t occur this year. Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said the expansion is dead, in light of continued uncertainty and litigation surrounding the Idaho Education Network’s contract.

But JFAC vice chair Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, originally told the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell that the expansion was still in play. But on Thursday, Bolz told Russell that the expansion was dead.

But Wednesday’s vote probably is not JFAC’s final word on the $7.3 million request — which would replenish about three-fourths of the network’s budget for 2014-15.

“The $7.3 million is up in the air,” Cameron said Wednesday morning. “We’ll address that at some later point.”

Future funding for the Idaho Education Network has emerged as one of the thorniest budget and education issues of the legislative session.

Three-fourths of Idaho Education Network funding typically comes from “e-rate” funds, a surcharge on cell phone and landline bills. But those funds have been on hold since March 2013, as a Federal Communications Commission contractor reviews the Idaho Education Network’s 2009 operating contract. That contract remains embroiled in a protracted lawsuit.

Budget-writers were caught off-guard on Jan. 30, when Otter and Administration Department abruptly requested $14.45 million to replace the e-rate dollars and keep the network funded through June 30, 2015.

A bill is in the works to replace e-rate dollars for the rest of the school year — and the rest of the state budget year, which ends June 30. A $6.6 million budget bill passed the House last week, and awaits a Senate vote, which could occur this week.

On Wednesday, budget-writers also showed their displeasure with the Administration Department, which renewed the 2009 Idaho Education Network contract through 2019 last year, without informing legislators.

JFAC approved pointed budget “intent language” on contracting. The department will be expected to submit a list of any contracts exceeding $1 million that are up for renewal. “The department shall also develop a statewide contract monitoring system that outlines the entire contracting process so that contracts are properly developed, awarded and monitored using a standardized, statewide framework.”

Cameron, R-Rupert, said the Legislature can’t really impose penalties against the agency for failing to comply with this requirement. “We would encourage every agency to comply with the intent language.”

Administration Department spokeswoman Jennifer Pike declined comment on Wednesday’s vote.

Check back throughout the day for updates on this story.

More reading: The state’s broadband and WiFi budget disputes, explained.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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