State after state decides how much to cut system aid

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In state capitals, public broadcasting advocates have been fighting uphill battles to preserve a key piece of stations’ revenue puzzle.

Like the federal government, states lack the revenue they need to maintain their present services. But their legislators generally must get agreement on balanced budgets long before Congress gets around to its decision-making.

In some cases, pubcasters succeeded in restoring funds during recently concluded legislative sessions, but they await signatures from Republican governors who proposed to phase-out pubcasting aid.

Elsewhere, budget negotiations continue and key votes lie ahead:

  • New Hampshire: Senate lawmakers are considering a House-approved bill to prohibit funding of the state’s public TV network, which receives $2.7 million, or roughly one-third of its budget, through the state’s university system —  which is also targeted for a deep cut. A state Senate committee proposes to sidetrack the bill because the bill assumes incorrectly that New Hampshire Public Television gets its aid from the state’s general budget instead of the university’s.
  • South Carolina: House legislators approved a bill that restructures state aid to South Carolina ETV, operator of statewide public TV and radio networks and a major provider of educational and training programs. Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican affiliated with the Tea Party, proposed in January to end SCETV’s $9.6 million annual subsidy, which provides nearly half of the statewide pubcaster’s budget. More recently, Halley replaced all seven members of ETV’s governing Educational Television Commission. Previous governor Mark Sanford had neglected appointment decisions.
  • Virginia: After Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) proposed to begin phasing out funding for the state’s public TV and radio stations with a 50 percent cut in 2012, Virginia lawmakers worked out a compromise budget providing $3.6 million to public stations, a 13 percent drop. The spending bill awaits Gov. McDonnell’s signature.
  • Mississippi: Legislators rejected Republican Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to begin cutting state aid to Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Barbour wanted to start with a 20 percent cut in 2012, but the lawmakers trimmed just 1.4 percent, setting the appropriation at $7.4 million, according to Margaret McPhillips, MPB spokeswoman. Barbour, who is exploring a bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, has not yet signed the legislature’s budget.
  • South Dakota: The state-owned TV/radio network is preparing to absorb a 16.5 percent cut in its state funding for 2012. The network of nine radio and nine TV stations serving a rural population of 814,000 last month announced layoffs of seven full-time staff members and elimination of three vacant positions, and it cancelled Jazz Nightly, which anchored its evening radio schedule. “I have fought this battle almost every year for the last five or six years,” said Julie Andersen, South Dakota Public Broadcasting executive director. “I’ll fight it again next year.” The state funding cuts of $750,000 in state aid will also prompt an $80,000 reduction in SDPB’s federal aid from CPB, she said.

States down $60 million in 2 years

While winning aid to public media is always a battle in some states, in others it’s a new tribulation brought on by the economic crash of fall 2008.

State governments’ total spending dropped from a peak of $687 billion in fiscal year 2008 to $613 billion in 2010, at the depth of the recession, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. The figure will recover to $645 billion this year, the association found in a study released last fall, but states will tumble over a “2012 cliff” as the feds withdraw stimulus money that has helped close budget gaps during the past two fiscal years.

Aid to public broadcasting has dropped along with state budgets.

Skip Hinton, president of the National Educational Telecommunications Association, estimates that pubcasting has lost roughly $60 million in state aid in two years — dropping from $270 million in fiscal 2008 to $210 million in 2010.

Among the factors contributing to that steep decline were the conclusion of spending for stations’ digital TV conversion, Hinton said, and the complete elimination of $9 million in state assistance to public TV stations in Pennsylvania.

“Any way you look at it, there’s been a huge loss of support over a three-year period,” Hinton said. With so many decisions on state spending up in the air, he can’t predict the funding levels for 2012.

In Virginia, one of the few states to provide annual operating grants to public stations, the grant pool has dropped nearly 50 percent over the past decade, according to Tom Duvall, g.m. of WMRA-FM in Harrisonburg. The state budget awaiting Gov. McDonnell’s signature will provide a grant of $86,000 for WMRA next year, the same amount as this year, but that’s down 45 percent from what the station received in 2001, he said.

With flat funding for their grant pool, Virginia’s public radio stations dodged the budget-cutting bullet for 2012, but pubTV outlets are losing 10 percent of state aid. Virginia’s TV stations are fortunate that they operate active instructional services associated with schools. The compromise budget whacks two-thirds of their CSG pool but rewards their school services budget with a 25 percent increase.

“A 10 percent cut is better than 50 percent cut, so I guess you could call it a reprieve,” said Bert Schmidt, president of WHRO in Norfolk, referring to Gov. McDonnell’s earlier proposal to cut pubcasting aid in half in 2012 and zero it out in 2013. “But it’s a $70,000 loss for us.”

Fallout from NPR controversies

Virginia’s debate about funding for public broadcasting has centered on funding priorities and the role of government in media, pubcasting leaders say, and not the political turmoil over NPR.

WHRO fielded many complaints about the firing of former NPR news analyst Juan Williams but few about the video sting of former NPR development chief Ron Schiller, according to Schmidt. “With lawmakers, it wasn’t at the heart of any of my conversations with them,” he said.

“I’m not sure that had any direct impact on our state funding,” said David Mullins, president of WVPT-TV in Harrisonburg. “It may have had an indirect impact on people’s opinions.”

But, in an odd twist that illustrates how some associate public TV with radio, the Juan Williams issue did inspire a bill that targeted New Hampshire Public Television’s state aid.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a six-term Republican who describes himself as “a Tea Party member from before there was a Tea Party,” said the Williams dismissal spurred him to write and introduce the bill, which gained House approval in February on a 263-102 vote.

Vaillancourt opposes government funding of media on principle, he said. When he began looking into state aid to pubcasting after the Williams affair, he discovered that  New Hampshire Public Radio, an independent community licensee that airs NPR news in the Granite State, receives no assistance. But New Hampshire Public Television does.

“I decided it’s a good time to stop funding public television,” he told Current. “When the state can’t afford to meet basic needs of the developmentally disabled and people who need drug treatment, we certainly don’t need public TV,” Vaillancourt said.

The state public TV network produces very little local programming, he said, and airs too many reruns of the Lawrence Welk Show, a program that has irked Vaillancourt since his childhood. Several years ago he introduced a bill to require NHPTV to spend its state funding on local productions, but it failed to gain support.

The legislator’s H.B. 113 may go down the same way: the Senate Finance Committee’s decision to label his bill “inexpedient” basically means that it lacks enough legislative support to warrant more work on its drafting, according to NHPTV spokeswoman Grace Lessner.

One shortcoming in the bill’s language is that it would prohibit the spending of general state funds on NHPTV, though the network gets its $2.7 million subsidy in university funds. The bill also would bar state agencies from contracting with NHPTV to provide educational programming, training or public-safety services, according to a briefing paper.

“H.B. 113 will have far-reaching and negative impacts on our other sources of support,” said Peter Frid, president. “Our work with state agencies is supported by general funds, and if we were to do a project with them we couldn’t receive revenues.”

Vaillancourt holds out hope that the full Senate will approve H.B. 113, but even if it dies NHPTV’s state funding challenge will be far from over.

Lawmakers are also considering cuts of 45 percent to the University of New Hampshire system, and, according to Lessner, legislators have indicated that they want NHPTV to take a big share of the fiscal pain.