- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Lawmakers have approved a $3.6 million emergency funding bill to sustain Idaho’s troubled broadband program for a handful of months.

House members voted 68-1 Thursday on a stopgap measure to sustain broadband access in nearly 200 public high schools after a district judge reaffirmed a prior ruling that the state’s $60 million broadband contract was illegal earlier this year.

Idaho law forbids using taxpayer money on illegal contracts, so lawmakers had to approve a new funding bill in order to maintain Internet access and video conferencing.

However, unlike relying on a statewide program, this bill would require school districts to negotiate their own broadband contracts and seek reimbursement later from the state’s Department of Education.

“It is really with disappointment and sadness that we come to this point,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, who was one of the broadband program’s original sponsors in 2009.

Idaho lawmakers are under a tight timeframe to approve the emergency funds because broadband vendors have threatened to pull their service as early as Feb. 22. The state stopped paying CenturyLink and Education Network of America when a district judge first voided the contract last November.

Democratic Rep. John Gannon cast the only nay vote, saying it was made out of protest.

“This is a way forward and it probably is something we have to do,” Gannon said. “But I will cast a protest vote because at the same time that we are moving forward, we should learn from this experience and we should learn very, very quickly. We need better procurement laws, and we definitely need better oversight and supervision of all of these contracts.”

The program, known as the Idaho Education Network, or IEN, provides broadband access to more than 200 Idaho public high schools. It has set up schools with video teleconference equipment, which allows teachers to offer classes to students across the state and increase the amount of dual-credit classes students can take to help prepare for college.

The bill is now headed to the Senate for approval.

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