The Legislature’s joint budget committee took a break after getting the bad news from the state Department of Administration that it’s requesting $14.45 million more for the Idaho Education Network, to keep broadband service to Idaho high schools going after millions in anticipated federal “e-rate” funds failed to arrive.
“The committee’s got to mull on it a little bit and try and figure out how we’re going to make this fit in a very tight budget,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “We may not be able to put as much into reserves. We may not be able to do a number of things we wanted to do, so it’s frustrating.” No specific date has been set for a vote on the new request, which came in a budget revision from Gov. Butch Otter as well as through the budget request from Administration Director Teresa Luna, who said all the money would go to vendor Education Networks of America, which would distribute shares of it to subcontractors including Century Link. She said based on experience with e-rate funds, she's confident that eventually the federal funds would be released and the state would be reimbursed for the $14.45 million.
Otter’s budget chief, Jani Revier, wrote in the budget revision memo to JFAC, “If the obligation to the vendors is not fulfilled, the districts that rely on the IEN for broadband will have no service until they are able to arrange for access independently. Districts with a secondary source will have broadband, but the delivery of the content will be disrupted. There will be at least an 18 month gap before districts could begin receiving e-rate funds, severely disrupting broadband access for schools.”
Cameron said he’s also frustrated “by the lack of communication. The department should do a better job of keeping us informed.” But, he said, “At the end of the day, we have to do the right thing, and I don’t think the right thing is to shut off the Idaho Education Network. We’ve got kids taking classes through it. We’ve got school districts that need to be protected,” and need to know if the network will be there next year as they plan their class offerings and budgets. “But I think the department needs to do a better job in its due diligence.”
“Unfortunately, a victim may be the expansion piece,” Cameron said; lawmakers are being asked to approve a $3.5 million state investment next year to expand the broadband network from high schools to the state’s middle and elementary schools. Said Cameron, “I don’t know how you vote on expanding IEN when you have no confidence that our federal partners are going to pay their fair share.”