January 14, 2010
Usually, public television is above this kind of awkward, reality-show confrontation.
Yet here was Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, arriving at Idaho Public Television Monday, for the airing of his boss' state of the state address. Minutes earlier, Hammon had walked reporters through a budget that would wean public TV off Idaho's general fund.
On the studio set, the tension was just a little bit higher than the norm. I felt sorry for Hammon. I also felt sorry for "Idaho Reports" anchor Thanh Tan - who professionally and even-handedly mentioned the proposed cuts during the broadcast. (This, by the way, is why I'd oppose a government newspaper "bailout"; I don't want to be a journalist forced to cover the agency that controls my paper's purse strings.)
A strange broadcast, indeed. The budget proposal might not have been the elephant in the room, but it was certainly the buzzard.
The public TV budget has been a perennially popular pinata around the Statehouse. But it has taken desperate times to force the issue - and give conservatives their bright and shining opening to stop paying for something they derisively call "government TV."
In the grander context of things, Otter might have a point.
The phaseout of public TV - which would begin in July, by cutting the general fund budget from $1.5 million to a shade above $1.1 million - isn't the single most shortsighted piece of his budget plan. My vote would go to his plan to continue to cut budgets for two- and four-year schools.
Nor is it Otter's most draconian move. That "honor" goes, hands down, to the midyear $27.9 million cut in public schools, which could force districts to drain down reserves, go into debt - and, eventually, let go of teachers.
And it's consistent with the clearance-sale approach Otter seems to be taking to state government. He seems to want user fees to bankroll what he considers government frills - such as state parks. Long-term, the idea is that viewer support and corporate and charitable donations would replace the state dollars that comprise about a quarter of the public TV budget.
But since Idaho seems determined to do a poor job of funding public schools and universities - essential functions clearly within state government's core mission - we shouldn't be surprised to see the state try to run parks or public TV on the cheap. And frankly, as a parent, I'm a lot more worried about the school budgets.
As a dues-paying public TV supporter, I hope I still will get my money's worth. If I were a donor in Idaho Falls or Twin Falls, cities where I lived before moving to Boise, I'd be concerned. One way for public TV to downsize would be to hack away at its affiliates and focus on its viewer and donor base: the Treasure Valley.
But wouldn't that take the Idaho out of Idaho Public Television? Wouldn't "Boise Public Television" disenfranchise a lot of the public?
Under Otter's plan, public TV would remain "government TV." It would simply operate outside the general fund budget, much like the Department of Fish and Game or the Idaho Transportation Department. That suggests that public TV remains a state asset, not a parochial one.
Privately owned media outlets - including the Statesman - have been forced to make a lot of tough budget decisions to focus on serving a core market. Public TV can't be immune from Idaho's budget crisis, and indeed, it has been forced to make cuts already. But by definition, its audience is statewide.
Hammon says the state has looked under the rocks for savings and now is reduced to looking for pebbles. A $1.5 million taxpayer savings isn't small, even amidst a $2.4 billion budget. But the onus is on Otter to prove that this is a pebble worth kicking over.
BIG YEAR FOR THE LAWYERS?
They aren't getting as much attention as the proposed 2010 budget cuts, but Otter's proposed midyear spending increases are also a window into our economic woes.
They are known in legislative longhand as "supplemental appropriations," and several are recession-driven:
- The Department of Health and Welfare would get $11.2 million for Medicaid, a state-federal public health program serving 201,000 low-income Idahoans, including 140,000 kids.
- A $4 million deposit into the state's cash-strapped catastrophic fund, which helps counties cover indigent medical bills. This fund is rapidly burning through a $19.8 million budget designed to last until June 30.
- An additional $1 million to handle enrollment increases at community colleges, including the College of Western Idaho. Even if this emergency money is built into their budget base, the two-year colleges are looking at a slight cut in the 2010-11 budget year, which begins July 1.
Another noteworthy supplemental is $500,000 going to the Department of Administration, headed by longtime Otter confidant Mike Gwartney.
The money is designed to hire outside legal counsel to represent the state in a lawsuit over the Idaho Education Network contract. This project, which is in Administration's bailiwick, is designed to bring broadband technology, and new courses, into rural classrooms.
Attorney General Lawrence Wasden's office doesn't have the resources to take on the state's defense, Hammon said. As a result, Idaho is outsourcing some of its high-profile cases, including a nasty discrimination and whistleblower lawsuit filed by ousted Idaho Transportation Department chief Pam Lowe.
Obviously, the state must defend itself when sued. But considering this $500,000 - not to mention Otter's ill-timed attempt to beef up a legal fund that could be used to sue Uncle Sam over health care reform - it's shaping up to be a great year for the lawyers.
Kevin Richert: 377-6437
Originally posted at http://www.idahostatesman.com/opinion/story/1040829.html
The Opinion posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.