IPTV budget cut, but not as much as Otter wanted

John Miller
March 9, 2010
Spokane Spokesman-Review

BOISE — The television station that broadcasts the Idaho Legislature, "Sesame Street" and other shows across the state appears likely to escape budget cuts of the magnitude Gov. C.L. "Butch" demanded when the 2010 session started.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Tuesday voted 19-0 to set Idaho Public Television's state funding at $1.4 million, down 16 percent from the original spending package for the current fiscal year but less than half the cut proposed by Otter on Jan. 11, when he announced plans to phase out state taxpayer support by 2014.

The Republican governor's aides originally said government-backed TV had grown superfluous in the era of the Internet, cable and satellite television, but the Republican chief revised his motivations weeks later: The proposed phase-out came after public TV manager Peter Morrill didn't respond adequately to his demands for austerity starting in September 2009.

Otter's plan prompted a public outcry when Morrill said it could mean pulling back his system of 42 statewide translators that taxpayer money now pays for, instead focusing on markets like Boise and Idaho Falls that form the core of private fundraising that covers programming.

Outside the budget hearing Tuesday, Morrill insisted he's doing his best to meet Otter's demands but still believes state support is critical to maintaining statewide service. He cites statistics that show Idaho Public TV already raises private money at levels above its peers.

"We have heard loud and clear. We will continue to be vigilant about going out and seeking new statewide funding streams," Morrill said. "But there are no easy answers."

The House and Senate are expected to give final approval to Tuesday's budget plan.

Idaho Public Television currently reaches 300,000 people weekly with as many as seven channels carrying programs that include Dialogue, the weekly political show "Idaho Reports" during the Legislature, "Outdoor Idaho," "Nova," "Frontline," "Nature" and the "News Hour with Jim Lehrer." It also provides an Internet feed of virtually all legislative hearings.

Otter, who has agreed to appear on public TV during its fundraising drive on Wednesday, said targeting the station's budget resulted in increased scrutiny. He also said he's examining a new business plan, created by Morrill in early February, to find additional savings - a clear indication the Republican governor hasn't abandoned this matter.

"I look forward to continuing our work together on this and other efforts to help ensure State agencies live within the people's means," Otter said in a statement.

Budget panelists insisted their 2011 budget vote wasn't meant to steer public policy or as a rebuff of Otter's plan.

If the Idaho Legislature decides the station should become self-sufficient, however, that's an issue to be resolved starting in the House and Senate Education committees, said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover. The station is overseen by the Idaho State Board of Education.

Still, Eskridge said Morrill would be ill-advised to ignore Otter's underlying message: In an era of economic crisis and falling tax revenue, government support only goes so far and agencies like public TV should aggressively seek new funding sources if they want to continue their mission.

"Public TV needs to take the same approach as the Department of Parks and Recreation," Eskridge said, referring to a plan by that agency to become self sufficient, including through camping fee increases. Eskridge wants new ideas to be considered, including taking annual fundraising marathons now based in Boise on the road to regional venues like the Panida Theatre in Sandpoint, in his district.

"It's obvious the governor wants that," he said. "That'll have to be confronted."

Still, Sen. Darrel Kerby, the former Bonners Ferry mayor filling in for northern Idaho Republican Sen. Shawn Keough while her husband undergoes heart surgery, illustrated the fundraising dilemma the station faces in rural Idaho. The economy of Kerby's community near the Canadian border is so depressed that it's unlikely residents could chip in more to pay for it, he said. But they still want Idaho Public TV programming.

"You know how we find out about Idaho in Bonners Ferry?" he said.

Originally posted at http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2010/mar/09/iptv-budget-cut-not-much-otter-wanted/

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