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Broadband lesson: Federal funds do not last forever and for always

Broadband lesson: Federal funds do not last forever and for always

Wayne Hoffman
November 14, 2014
Wayne Hoffman
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November 14, 2014

In Declo, the high school principal, Roland Bott, says he’s worried for his students. They’re depending on a broadband system that delivers math courses to that southern Idaho school district. Without the course, the 57 students might not be able to take a course that they must take in order to graduate.

That’s according to an Associated Press story following up on the aftermath of a judge’s decision to toss out the contract that kept the Idaho Education Network going. The problems with the contract have been simmering for years, and that caught the eye of the federal government, which decided to withhold funding.

I’m not writing today about the contract; instead I’m focused on the fact that hundreds of programs in Idaho depend on federal money, and that money could go away at any time, just as happened with the broadband system. State lawmakers are unprepared. So are the Idahoans who depend on hundreds of programs funded in whole or in part by the federal government.

Gov. Butch Otter signed an executive order in March asking agencies to list all of their grants and the possible repercussions should the federal government withhold 10 percent of the funds. That led to a report spanning 92 pages listing the grants covering the whole of state government.

Now, lawmakers will be able to see what they’re voting on this winter when agency budgets are presented. Hopefully, that will spark a good amount of discussion about what’s being funded and why, measure the impact of federally funded programs and act in the best interests of their constituents.

But agencies still need to put a lot more thought into what might happen if the federal government stops being so generous. For example, the Idaho Transportation Department, in its report, opined that it is “operating under the assumption there will be no reduction in federal funding.” This is stunning, given that it’s no secret that the federal trust fund that supplies money to states for highway projects is empty, and so far, there’s little political will to address the issue.

The Department of Insurance noted that with a 10 percent reduction in federal funding, “services would be reduced.” That’s not what I would call informative.

One agency, the Commission on Aging, just made it into a math problem, tallying up the dollar amount it would lose if subjected to 10 percent less federal dollars.

Since 2003, Idaho’s reliance on federal money has grown 86 percent. The number of programs, the number of people using those programs and the number of government employees administering those programs keeps growing and growing.

Down at the Statehouse, the rooms are equipped with fire alarms. No one knows when or if another fire will break out. But it’s understood that it’s best to be prepared. If there is a fire, preparation might just save lives, summon the fire department and reduce the damage.

Similarly, being prepared for the possibility that federal money goes away is an important task, one that Idaho officials should take seriously. Today the education broadband system is at risk. Tomorrow, it may well be a program that veterans, children, the elderly or the poor are depending on.

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