Legislative leaders on Thursday called for the state to rebid its voided broadband Internet contract and ensure the system is not disrupted for students and schools.
The fate of broadband connections serving Idaho schools and the overall education funding picture were two of the focal points when Gov. Butch Otter and top legislative Republicans and Democrats met with reporters Thursday.
In November, District Judge Patrick Owen threw out the state’s disputed $60 million contract. State officials hadn’t received federal “E-rate” payments to support the contract since 2013, but last year the Legislature took steps to fund the program through February.
The contract “does need to be terminated,” Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg said. “Maybe the judge did us a favor from that standpoint. It does need to be re-bid.”
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, agreed the contract needs re-bidding and the service needs to be preserved. But he wondered whether state officials are doing enough.
“The fact is, we’ve kind of been futzing around; we’ve known for a long time there have been problems with the contract and the (federal e-rate) money stopped,” Rusche said. “My question is why aren’t we moving on it?”
Otter also called for greater transparency, scrutiny and oversight relating to all state contracts valued at $5 million or more. He and top-ranking legislators also suggested a bill is in the works to put additional “sideboards” (a commonly used Statehouse buzzword that often means restrictions or parameters) into contract procedures.
“We would like to have all of those potential courtroom question answered long prior to awarding the contract,” Otter said.
The governor did concede that he was “admittedly surprised” by problems with Idaho Education Network broadband agreement and other contract issues.
“The buck always stops at the top whatever happens with those contracts … though I am not involved on a day-to-day basis,” Otter said. “Whether right or wrong, I still have to accept responsibility in the long term for the success or failure for contracts in any agency.”
Otter brought in former Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, to help find solutions. He has also called on Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna to implement additional degrees of transparency in state contract procedures.
But Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, questioned whether the right people are working to fix the issues.
“I am a little concerned two players that were a part of the original IEN contract are going to go in and revamp it,” Stennett said. “It’s up to us to make sure (we have) better oversight of this one.”
The press conference, sponsored by the Associated Press, has become a Statehouse tradition and one of the harbingers of the upcoming legislative session, which opens Monday.
Check back with Idaho Education News on Friday for coverage of Otter’s inauguration and again on Monday for coverage of his State of the State address.