State House passes Arkansas PBS appropriation after three votes for second consecutive fiscal session

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The Arkansas House of Representatives.

The Arkansas House of Representatives passed Arkansas PBS’ appropriations bill Wednesday after two failed attempts for the second consecutive fiscal session.

Appropriations bills need a three-fourths majority vote to pass each chamber: 76 votes in the House and 27 votes in the Senate. Two years ago, the fiscal year 2023 Arkansas PBS appropriations bill also took three tries to pass the House.

This year’s bill received 68 votes Tuesday and 72 votes on the first try Wednesday. It later passed with 78 votes for it, 11 votes against it, six members voting present and five not voting.

All of the House members that voted “no” or “present” all three times were Republicans.

Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, the House chair of the Joint Budget Committee, told his colleagues after Wednesday’s first vote that it was in their best interest to pass the bill before the fiscal session ends next week.

“People will start calling and the pressure will start rising … and we’ll get called down here for a special session [if it doesn’t pass],” Jean said. “For $6 million, it’s not worth it.”

The bill would give Arkansas PBS the authority to spend up to $6.24 million in taxpayer dollars and $8.96 million in private funds.

Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, said he voted against the bill because he believed some of Arkansas PBS’ programming is unnecessary due to the ubiquity of streaming and online content. He also said state officials’ ongoing plans to cut taxes will require some reduction in state-funded programs.

“Defunding Arkansas PBS would probably be a very small step toward having smaller, more affordable government, and it would be a good first step in the right direction,” Long said.

Other House Republicans disagreed. Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, reminded the chamber that Arkansas PBS maintains the state’s emergency alert system towers that warn the public about severe weather.

Rep. RJ Hawk, R-Bryant, said local broadcasting stations would not have the capacity to maintain their areas’ emergency alert systems on their own if Arkansas PBS no longer had this power, citing his experience working for a radio station.

Hawk also addressed Long’s comment about streaming services and internet access.

“Right now we don’t have 100% internet connectivity in the state of Arkansas,” he said. “…[In] every corner of the state with an over-the-air signal, you can get Arkansas PBS.”

The educational television network has been under legislative scrutiny for months. Administrators faced questions from lawmakers last year after a 2022 audit of the agency raised concerns that Arkansas PBS officials sidestepped state laws related to contract bidding, possibly intentionally. CEO Courtney Pledger and her cohorts insisted to the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee that they had no such intentions.

The committee authorized a new audit in November to examine more than two years of “procurements and related processes” at Arkansas PBS.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, has been the Legislature’s most vocal critic of Arkansas PBS. Last week, he introduced an amendment to the network’s appropriations bill that would have reduced the agency’s spending authority for private funds by 20%, from $8.96 million to $7.17 million. The Joint Budget Committee rejected the amendment.

In 2022, Sullivan introduced a bill that would have cut the network’s appropriations for both private and state funds by a cumulative 25%. The bill died in the Joint Budget Committee at the end of the fiscal session.

The Senate will vote Thursday on whether to send the bill to the governor’s desk as the fiscal session wraps up. Arkansas PBS’ fiscal year 2023 appropriations bill passed the Senate with no dissent.

This article was originally published by the Arkansas Advocate and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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