Legislative budget writers have turned thumbs down on a proposal to expand the Idaho Education Network to elementary and middle schools next year, as the state grapples with millions in missing federal e-rate funds for the existing broadband network connecting the state’s high schools. “At this point, basically we don’t know where we are on e-rate,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, the JFAC vice-chair who made the motion on the Department of Administration’s budget in the joint committee yesterday.
There was some confusion yesterday as to whether that decision was final, as another question in that budget was deferred – whether to pay another $7.3 million state funds to Education Networks of America and its partners in the contract to cover the missing e-rate funds for the coming year. But today, budget writers and their staffers clarified that the expansion decision has been made – it won’t happen next year. “Until we figure out what’s going on with e-rate, I don’t think we need to go and expand it,” Bolz said. The budget motion he crafted with Reps. Youngblood, Thompson and King passed yesterday on a unanimous, 19-0 vote in JFAC. It still needs approval from both houses and the governor’s signature to become law, but budgets rarely change once they’re set by the joint committee.
The federal e-rate funds were supposed to pay for three-quarters of the cost of the IEN, including any possible expansion, but they stopped flowing last March, after an Idaho Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit challenging the state’s original contract award for the IEN. Lawmakers didn’t find that out until January. That lawsuit is still proceeding, and the Federal Communications Commission is investigating whether the contract was awarded improperly. If it decides it was, the state could also have to repay $13 million in e-rate funds already received before last March.