The state probably won’t wind up having to pay nearly $28 million to keep its Idaho Education Network broadband project afloat, Gov. Butch Otter said Tuesday.
But Otter defended his proposal to provide the project with $14.45 million in supplemental money, saying the broadband network provides essential Internet connectivity to nearly 90,000 high school students.
“I put a high priority on the (network), because I believe it’s proved its worth,” Otter said during a breakfast question-and-answer session sponsored by the Idaho Press Club.
Otter fielded a broad range of questions during the hour-long session — and several were focused on the Idaho Education Network funding crisis.
Otter’s Department of Administration caught legislative budget-writers off-guard on Jan. 30, with a $14.45 million proposal to keep the statewide broadband program afloat. The Otter administration says the money is needed because of delays in federally managed payments to the state. These payments comprise about 75 percent of the network’s budget — but they are on hold while a federal contractor reviews the state’s 2009 broadband contract.
And since Jan. 30, the news has only gotten worse. On Feb. 6, Administration Department Director Teresa Luna said the state could wind up having to pay back more than $13 million to the feds, if the state’s contract is voided.
On Tuesday, Otter downplayed that possibility. While the 2009 contract remains mired in a four-year-old lawsuit, Otter believes the contract will be upheld — and that the state will eventually receive the federally managed money.
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“It’s not unusual for us to have a lawsuit any time we let a contract,” Otter said. “Those just come by normal.”
The Idaho Education Network contract was crafted by then-Administration Department Director Mike Gwartney, a longtime Otter confidante. Otter defended Gwartney Tuesday, saying he had a “great deal of confidence” in him. He said he does occasionally ask to Gwartney about the lawsuit, but added, “Teresa Luna’s running the shop now.”
The funding in question is known as “e-rate” funding, collected on monthly cell phone and landline bills and administered by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC’s contractor has not paid Idaho e-rate money since March, while conducting its own review of the Idaho Education Network contract.
On another topic, Otter distanced himself from lawmakers and state Superintendent Tom Luna, who are pushing for pay raises for state employees and teachers. Otter’s budget proposal freezes wages for state employees and teachers.
Both requests “come down to budget numbers and budget priorities,” Otter said. But the governor said he doesn’t like the idea of across-the-board raises, saying managers should have the discretion to use pay raises as a “management tool.”
Luna’s proposed K-12 budget includes a combination of pay raises for teachers: a 1 percent increase that would be applied across-the-board, and $16 million in teacher “leadership bonuses” that constitute the first step in a salary ladder.
Disclosure: Idaho Education News is based out of Boise State University and its reporters are state employees. Their salaries are paid by a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, not public tax dollars.
VIDEO: Gov. Butch Otter discusses funding the recommendations from his education reform task force.