Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to eliminate all state funding for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network has network officials scrambling to convince state legislators the money is crucial to the public broadcaster’s mission, and has longtime MPBN listeners and viewers angry and ready to take action.
Some listeners and viewers were especially upset after LePage said at a public gathering Thursday in South Paris that appropriating state funds for the network amounts to corporate “welfare.”
“Partisan stuff aside, how can you call it corporate welfare? Not everyone can afford cable TV. People who are less fortunate really rely on MPBN to know what’s going on in the state,” said Darcy Halvorsen, 44, of South Portland, who works as a caregiver with VNA Home Health & Hospice. “It just blows me away that he (LePage) would do away with that sort of access for people.”
MPBN currently gets about $1.9 million — or 17.4 percent — of its $11.2 million operating budget from the state, so eliminating the entire amount would not necessarily mean the end of the network. However, a cut of that size could diminish the network’s programming and statewide reach severely.
“This proposal would have a significant impact on MPBN’s ability to achieve its long-standing mission of service to the whole state,” said Mark Vogelzang, president and CEO of MPBN, who began his job in January.
While he wouldn’t speculate about what sort of cuts would be needed if all state funding is lost, Vogelzang said cuts would include “a lot of things in every area.” He also said the public network has cut staff significantly during the past five years to reduce costs — going from 130 full-time employees to 85.
Vogelzang was traveling to Augusta on Friday as he discussed the proposed cut, saying he wanted to talk to legislators about restoring most if not all of the state’s MPBN funding to the proposed state budget. Vogelzang said he already knows there is “strong, bipartisan support” for MPBN among legislators and he is confident that they will not adopt LePage’s proposal as is.
Last year when LePage proposed cutting all state funding for MPBN, the Legislature made a much smaller cut, trimming more than $200,000.
This year some Republicans say they support further cuts.
Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Hancock, chairman of the Joint Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said he supports the public funding of the state’s emergency broadcast system, which is operated by MPBN, but does not support the use of government funds for MPBN’s operational and programming budgets.
However, Rosen said, reductions in funding to MPBN should be done gradually over a period of years.
“A total elimination of funding in 2013 is too drastic, and I don’t believe it provides any kind of long-term plan for the system,” Rosen said.
Rosen said he hopes to pick up the dialogue with MPBN where it left off last spring and get answers to pending questions, such as whether a federal source could pay for the emergency broadcast system.
Nationally, proposals to cut funding for public broadcasting have been made by politicians — mostly Republicans — going back at least 20 years. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told an Ohio audience in early March that he was in favor of cutting federal funding for commercial-free public TV, saying “I don’t think we should be borrowing money so that our kids don’t have to watch a Kellogg’s advertisement.”
There is no proposal to cut federal funding for MPBN.
When LePage proposed cutting all state funding for MPBN last year, MPBN officials said it was the first time they could remember that elimination of all state funding for the network ever being proposed in Maine. MPBN officials said most state budgets over the years have included only slight cuts in funding from year to year.
Chris Kast, an advertising executive from Portland, said he thinks the proposal by the LePage, a Republican, is politically motivated.
“To me, (LePage) wants to remove funding because of the ‘liberal journalism’ on public broadcasting,” said Kast, 51. “MPBN isn’t a typical corporation. It’s an essential service that provides news, information and entertainment that Mainers couldn’t get elsewhere.”
MPBN has five TV stations, seven radio stations and transmitters around the state. As of the end of 2011, the network was drawing an estimated 180,000 TV viewers and 175,000 radio listeners a week with a mix of local and national news and entertainment. The network also has more than 48,000 financially contributing members.
Of its $11,254,035 budget for the current fiscal year, MPBN gets $7,224,400 (64.2 percent) from members, corporate underwriting and other community fundraising, $1,954,235 (17.4 percent) from the state, $1,682,400 (14.9 percent) from federal sources, and $393,000 (3.5 percent) from other sources including leasing fees or interest on regular bank accounts.