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Pawlenty’s budget zeroes out MPR, TPT, state’s public broadcasters

Somewhere, the Strib’s Mike Sweeney may be smiling: Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s modified 2011 budget proposes eliminating the entire $2.015 million general-fund appropriation for public broadcasting, including $250,000 for Minnesota Public Radio.

Somewhere, the Strib’s Mike Sweeney may be smiling: Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s modified 2011 budget proposal eliminates the entire $2.015 million general-fund appropriation for public broadcasting, including $250,000 for Minnesota Public Radio. The 2011 fiscal year begins July 1.

The zeroing out (which would extend through the 2012-13 biennium, even though Pawlenty would be out of office by then) primarily hits the state’s six public television stations, which would lose a collective $1.361 million in FY11. Public radio stations would see $387,000 less beyond MPR’s $250K, and regional cable would be out $17,000.

Public broadcasters are in a tough position arguing against draconian cuts when hospitals are set to take a 77 percent reimbursement hit for indigent coverage under General Assistance Medical Care. Another sympathy-sapper: the nonprofit media just received a windfall from the Legacy Amendment, which has funneled new sales-tax millions into arts, cultural and historical programming.

Still, the DFL-controlled Senate, unsurprisingly, wants to undo almost all of the Republican governor’s plan. Last week, a Senate Finance subcommittee released a plan for much smaller cuts at an across-the-board rate many agencies and initiatives would experience. Broadcasters would take a 3 percent cut for the current fiscal year, and an additional 6 percent cut in the 2011 budget year. MPR, for example, would lose $20,000 through June 2012, instead of $250,000.

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The House has not yet released targets, broadcast officials say.

So how do public broadcasters defend keeping most of their cash? The same way lobbyists for education and other programs have: by pointing to federal matching funds that would be lost.

MPR Managing Director of Public Strategy Jeff Nelson says the radio network’s general fund appropriation goes to expand stations in rural Minnesota. The current biennium’s money ($500,000 for the two years combined) is paying for new stations in Ely, Hinckley and International Falls. The feds are matching $1.20 for every $1 of state support, or $600,000 total.

The governor’s proposal means, “We can’t build all three stations and will have to send a significant portion of that funding back to Washington,” Nelson notes. “We are more than willing to do our part to solve the state’s budget problem; but eliminating general funding for public broadcasting altogether is not the answer.”

Allen Harmon, the Duluth-based president of the Minnesota Public Television Association, says the ripple effect is even bigger for his members; the lost $1.361 million will trigger a $3.8 million cut when federal and other funds are figured in.

He says the governor’s axe would chop 20 percent from the smallest station’s budget (Austin’s KSMQ) — and that’s before matching funds cuts kick in.

For Harmon’s own stations, Duluth’s WDSE and Hibbing’s WRPT, the state cuts would mean a 10 percent smaller budget. However, personnel spending would drop 20 percent because stations don’t control utility and other fixed costs. Harmon says Duluth would end a popular doctor call-in program, candidate forums and election-year programming, an arts and essay program and outreach. He adds that Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) “has said they’d have to make cuts in those programs where they don’t have grant funding, like Almanac and Almanac at the Capitol.”

OK, those are shows legislators are particularly attuned to, so this is a little bit like cities that threaten to cut police and fire first. But what about all that new Legacy cash flowing in to station coffers?

Harmon acknowledges public TV received roughly $3.5 million from the 2008 amendment, which started disgorging cash last summer. That’s almost equivalent to the $3.8 million cut triggered by the governor’s proposal; Harmon adds that public broadcasters also took a $1 million hit last biennium.

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“It helps,” Harmon says of the Legacy money, “but here’s the twist – because the [constitutional] language says it can only be used to supplement, not supplant current programs, you can’t use it to replace current spending.”

He notes that Bemidji’s Lakeland Public TV used Legacy funds to add arts and cultural heritage segments into its nightly news program. But the governor’s zeroing-out means Lakeland may not be able to do the nightly news at all.

“I don’t want to overstate the case, but this could lead to signals going dark,” Harmon says. “Stations could fall below the base level of funding for federal grants, given hits to other revenue sources.”

MPR is in no danger of going out of business. Its $250,000-a-year general fund appropriation is dwarfed by its Legacy appropriation of $1.5 million for the current fiscal year and $1.15 million in FY11. But Nelson, like Harmon, says Legacy monies can only be used for programming-related expenses, not capital projects like a broadcasting tower.

Stations can certainly ramp up their fundraising — they have already — and could conceivably redirect their spending to keep the federal cash flowing. In any event, the session still has weeks to play out, so broadcasters have much more time to press the case that they are deserving of no bigger percentage cut than others.