Otter wields budget knife to spur IPTV savings

John Miller
February 16, 2010
Idaho Statesman

BOISE, Idaho — Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter proposed eliminating $1.7 million in taxpayer funding for Idaho Public Television because its manager offered inadequate budget-cutting measures last year, the Republican chief executive's finance chief said Tuesday.

On Jan. 11, Otter announced plans to dump public TV funding by 2014, starting with a $550,000 cut in July.

Wayne Hammon, the Division of Financial Management director, now says Idaho Public Television general manager Peter Morrill's agency was among those targeted with deep budget cuts because it failed to sufficiently respond to Otter's request in September for how it would accomplish impending statewide holdbacks.

"I would not say they were being punished," Hammon said. "The budget was meant as a wake-up call for them to get on board."

Until now, Otter's aides have said cutting Idaho Public Television's funding was largely based on his view that taxpayer-funded public TV was outside the scope of government. That position has prompted an outcry from public TV supporters, who say the statewide network provides quality educational programming over its 42 translators to virtually all of Idaho.

The new twist emerged Tuesday, when Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes told reporters at an Idaho Press Club forum in Boise that state agencies faced the threat of losing state funding because they hadn't cooperated with Otter as he tackled the state's biggest financial crisis in 40 years.

Other agencies on the chopping block were the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Human Rights Commission, the Hispanic Commission, the Independent Living Council, the Developmental Disabilities Council and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Council.

"Those agencies and departments who chose to kind of thumb their nose at the governor found that they didn't find a place in his budget," Geddes said.

Hammon confirmed Geddes' remarks, but said the other agencies have since largely satisfied Otter's demands. That includes the Human Rights Commission with its plan to move into the Department of Labor, and Parks and Recreation's proposal to raise fees and eliminate jobs to save $4.5 million while still keeping 30 state parks open.

On Sept. 10, Morrill was among agency directors who received a letter from Otter's finance managers advising them of a projected $151 million 2010 budget shortfall - and asking them to "closely analyze your current ... spending plans for possible reductions."

A week later, Morrill responded by describing how his agency's budget had been cut by nearly 50 percent since 2009 and said further budget cuts weren't possible "without significant reduction in services."

"We regret that we are unable to voluntarily reduce our general fund appropriation without significantly impacting the viewers we serve," he wrote Sept. 18.

Hammon took that for unwillingness, but Morrill, public TV's director for 15 years, contends the real culprit behind the Capitol dustup is miscommunication. Morrill says he's always complied with Otter's requests to trim spending, including laying off two employees in September to help make up for the latest $125,000 holdback.

"We suggested with this document that the only way we could go was to lay off people," Morrill said of the letter, adding he would have been more specific if he'd known exactly what Hammon wanted.

Last week, Morrill did submit a 42-page business plan outlining how his station would operate without state funding. For instance, it would charge the Idaho Legislature for live broadcasts, which run more than $200,000 annually.

Hammon told reporters Tuesday that Morrill's business plan was inadequate and "says again there is no room for savings."

Morrill said separately that was the first he'd heard of objections.

"I haven't gotten a call," he said.

The two sides have until March 9 to patch up differences, when the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is due to set Idaho Public Television's budget.

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