Legislators approve budget that cuts $1M from West Virginia Public Broadcasting

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The West Virginia legislature passed a budget bill Sunday that would reduce the state’s subsidy for West Virginia Public Broadcasting by $1 million, stepping back from a Senate proposal to completely zero-out support for WVPB.

The bill, which sets spending levels for the entire state government, doesn’t resolve the debate over funding to public broadcasting for next year, but opens the next phase of deliberations. Governor Jim Justice, who initially proposed to eliminate WVPB’s $4.6 million subsidy, has said he prefers to maintain the funding for the time being. The bill now awaits Justice’s signature.

That means “all funding levels are still on the table,” according to Scott Finn, WVPB CEO, who posted an update of the funding situation on the station’s website Sunday afternoon. Gov. Justice called for full funding of WVPB as part of a restructuring plan that would transfer WVPB’s license to West Virginia University.  

Finn said it is “unclear” if Justice will sign the state budget bill. He expects the governor and lawmakers to negotiate a compromise on the state budget. A final decision on WVPB funding may be delayed until a special legislative session that will take place before July 1, he said. WVPB’s fiscal year begins July 1.

With state lawmakers agreeing on a $1 million cut, the pubcasting network has worked out a scenario to adjust for the loss of about 22 percent of its budget. The list of possible cuts includes layoffs of 20 of its 71 staffers (five of which would include not filling open positions); shutting down six TV translators; cutting local production, such as a planned documentary on the state’s Vietnam veterans; cancelling popular syndicated programs such as British comedies and dramas; reducing its TV master control hours; or losing local news bureaus.

With its state funding in jeopardy, support for WVPB has been strong, Finn said. He pointed to West Virginia House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson who said on the House floor, “I’m not sure if I’ve received more emails and calls than on this one particular line item. Unbelievable.”

The station’s Friends group will continue its Back in the Budget campaign, which calls on  supporters to contact their state representatives, until funding is finalized. The state network will also continue to air “Protect WVPB” stories on its TV and radio broadcasts and on social media.

The pending budget bill proposes another change to WVPB’s state funding, according to Finn. Rather than providing the subsidy through the Office of the Secretary of Education and the Arts, which has had oversight of WVPB through the Educational Broadcasting Authority, it directs the state’s department of education to manage WVPB’s funding.