- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Top legislative leaders said Tuesday they are no longer optimistic that the $8 million they put aside last year will be used as a settlement in the state’s ongoing broadband legal disputes.

However, House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill said that they are still waiting on key rulings before making any final decisions.

“The cautionary approach is to make sure that minor amount of money is available if we need it,” Hill said. “We don’t know what the outcome is going to be. The state could end with a windfall, or we could end up owing something.”

A consortium of telephone companies called Syringa Networks sued the state over the broadband contract in 2009, contending the Idaho Department of Administration illegally handled the contract to install the broadband infrastructure in public schools.

The goal of the program was to contract with vendors to provide urban and rural schools with high speed internet and help facilitate students who take classes with video teleconferencing equipment.

A district judge ruled in February 2015 that the broadband contract was illegal and violated the state’s procurement laws. Idaho then lost its appeal to the state’s highest court. After the contract was voided, schools were left on their own to develop their individual contracts with vendors to maintain services.

Last year, Bedke and Hill told lawmakers that they had been negotiating with the two main vendors involved in the now defunct broadband program. Even though the $60 million statewide contract had just been deemed illegal, legislative leaders wanted to compensate the companies for work provided but not yet paid for under the contract.

Those settlement talks have since dissolved after the companies, Education Networks of America and Qwest, and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office disagreed over who deserves compensation. All three have filed separate lawsuits that are currently awaiting judicial rulings. Those decisions will determine if the state will be forced to pay a bill.

The taxpayer money put aside so it can be used for a possible settlement has not been returned to the state’s general fund. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter did not ask lawmakers to return the funds in his annual State of the State address on Monday. State budget writers haven’t been asking for those state dollars either.

“We don’t normally have little pots of money sitting around, but that’s because these past few years we didn’t have the money to do so,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, a Republican from Jerome, who co-chairs the powerful Joint Finance Appropriations budget committee. “We finally have some extra money, so we can set some of it aside.”

The designated settlement funds were placed in a little-known account called the Legislative Legal Defense Fund, which was first created in 2012. Only the House speaker and Senate president pro tem can approve spending from the fund. So far, it has been used to pay for outside legal advice instead of relying on the attorney general’s office. It has never been used for settlements or court fees.

Bedke said that he has not been asked to return the money to the general fund or funnel the dollars to a separate project.

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