No progress, yet, on broadband budget

Key legislators and Otter administration officials met late Wednesday afternoon to try to sort out the state’s broadband budget mess.

But nothing was resolved, said Sen. Dean Cameron, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. And Jon Hanian, a spokesman for Gov. Butch Otter, said the negotiations “are still in process.”

Otter is seeking $14.45 million to keep the Idaho Education Network high school broadband system online through June 30, 2015 — since federally administered broadband money has been on hold for nearly a year. Lawmakers have said they want to keep the network intact, but they have balked at the $14.45 million request.

Otter’s Department of Administration made the funding request on Jan. 30. JFAC has not yet scheduled a hearing, and committee members have been trying to gather information about the funding mess.

And, evidently, that process continued Wednesday.

“There were some very pointed questions asked and answered,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, who attended part of the meeting.

It is critical for the broadband system to remain in place as an “avenue” for student learning, Goedde said Thursday morning. But Goedde said concerns linger about the broadband system — and the 2009 contract to provide broadband to every high school in the state.

The contract with Education Networks of America sits at the heart of funding impasse. Project subcontractor Syringa Networks has sued the state over its limited share of the Idaho Education Network contract, and one of its court claims remains active in District Court.

While Otter administration officials have defended the contract and downplayed the legal challenges, the dispute has caught the attention of the Universal Service Administrative Company. A contractor for the Federal Communications Commission, USAC administers the “e-rate” funds that make up three-fourths of the Idaho Education Network budget. But USAC is now conducting an independent review of the Idaho Education Network contract; consequently, the contractor hasn’t released any e-rate dollars since March.

This raises a host of questions about Idaho Education Network funding:

  • There’s the question of funding for the rest of the 2013-14 budget year, which ends June 30. Otter is seeking $7.15 million to keep this year’s budget whole.
  • Then there’s the question of 2014-15 funding. Otter is seeking $7.3 million.
  • A related question surrounds an expansion of the Idaho Education Network service from high schools to the state’s middle schools and elementary schools. The Department of Administration is seeking slightly more than $1 million for the expansion, a project expected to take about two years. One JFAC vice chairman, Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, is uneasy about the expansion request, in light of the existing $14.45 million budget gap.
  • Another open question would arise if USAC deems the Idaho Education Network contract null and void. Administration Department Director Teresa Luna has said the state could be on the hook for more than $13 million in back payments.

Wednesday’s meeting was attended by some — but not all — of the key players in the funding impasse.

Otter staff and “some cabinet members” attended, said Hanian.

But State Superintendent Tom Luna was not at the meeting, nor was House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt.

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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