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Eye on Boise: Ruling means ‘reset’ for school broadband plan

Idaho lawmakers are scrambling after a judge reaffirmed last week that the state’s $60 million contract for a broadband network that links every Idaho high school was issued illegally.

The state immediately filed a notice of appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court, but the high court already ruled against the state in a strongly worded earlier ruling in the case.

Stung lawmakers aren’t enthusiastic about the Otter administration’s proposal for a one-year “bridge contract” to get a new state contract in place to offer exactly the same services the Idaho Education Network was offering – broadband connections and videoconferencing. The 2009 contract with politically connected vendors Education Networks of America and Qwest Communications, now CenturyLink, looks less attractive six years later, with many school districts not using the pricey videoconferencing equipment.

“We have to hit the reset button. We have to do it by legal means,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Rupert, said, “I think we should separate ourselves from anything contractual at this point and let that air clear.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said, “We’ve been hearing from school districts that they might be able to get the services less expensively than what we have been paying.”

Though CenturyLink has threatened to cut off the service to schools this month if the state doesn’t resume payments under the voided contract – which state law prohibits – Keough said, “I don’t subscribe to panic.”

“The Legislature has the opportunity really to start fresh,” she said. “We put our trust into the Department of Administration – apparently that was misplaced. And now the public expects us to move forward in a transparent and prudent manner.”

It was the state Department of Administration, then headed by Mike Gwartney, Gov. Butch Otter’s best friend who took the job for a $1-a-year salary, that awarded the IEN contract. Current director Teresa Luna, sister of former state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, last year extended the IEN contract through 2019 without informing the Legislature, infuriating lawmakers.

Souza wants disclosure

Freshman Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, is sponsoring legislation to make school board candidates subject to the same campaign finance disclosure requirements that already apply to candidates for city council and community college trustee.

The Senate Education Committee agreed to introduce Souza’s bill, SB 1072, last week; Souza told the panel that Alaska and North Dakota are the only two other states that don’t require campaign finance reporting for candidates for school trustee. “Many of the school districts in our state are having more contentious and more involved elections,” Souza said.

The bill includes an emergency clause, making it effective immediately if it passes both houses and is signed into law by the governor.

Competitor arrives

A Florida company has announced that it’s entering the “historical horse racing” business as a competitor to the current provider of “instant racing” games, Race Tech LLC/AmTote International. Race Tech developed the betting machines now installed in Idaho, including at the Greyhound Park in Post Falls. A Senate panel last week voted to repeal the law allowing the machines, saying they’re likely illegal in Idaho.

The Florida company’s chief communications officer, Patrick Neely, said the debate in Idaho has been focused on the “specific games of the current provider,” and said, “Now that another company has entered the market, perhaps the dialogue can change somewhat.”

Encore Racing Based Games, or EncoreRBG, was founded in 2013 and is just unveiling its products this month. The company’s CEO is Ray Reid, a Nashville, Tennessee, businessman and part-owner of the Kentucky Downs racetrack.

The company says its games will give players “the option to study handicapping data for as long as they want before placing a bet on the horse races,” and see stop-action video replays and detailed charts on race results. Senators said the current “historical horse racing” machines are more like slot machines, and allow quick, repeated betting regardless of the snippet of a past horse race shown on a small video screen.

Consensus reached

The Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Education Association have reached agreement on two school labor-law bills that have had one-year expirations attached to them for the past two years. The school boards agreed to bring back criteria for teacher layoffs, while the teachers union agreed to let districts reduce teacher salaries from one year to the next, which previously had been prohibited. The consensus bill was introduced on Thursday, clearing the way for a full hearing.

Boise reporter Betsy Z. Russell posts updates on the Eye on Boise blog at www.spokesman.com/blogs/boise.