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 in South Paris on Thursday 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 (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. But a cut of that size could severely diminish the network’s programming and statewide reach.

“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 significantly cut staff 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 allow LePage’s proposal to go through as is.

Last year when LePage proposed cutting all state funding for MPBN, the Legislature decided to make a much smaller cut, trimming more than $200,000 from the state’s MPBN funding.

THIS TIME, MORE CUTS PROPOSED

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 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 there is some federal source to pay for the emergency broadcast system.

Rep. Andre E. Cushing III, R-Hampden, the House’s assistant majority leader, admits that there is legislative support for MPBN and its programming.

“I know this is a significant source of funding for them, and they do provide a good service that we all benefit from, but the difficulity for us is that we are facing many other financial challenges,” Cushing said.

“Personally, I would regret having to make any cuts, but in the context of the funding priorities we have in Augusta, everyone, including MPBN, is going to have to participate,” he said.

MEETING SET FOR WEDNESDAY

The Joint Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee is scheduled to review the governor’s supplemental budget and the proposed cut to MPBN at 3 p.m. Wednesday, according to the committee’s website.

“There is no guarantee that what the governor has proposed is what the Appropriations Committee will report out to the full Legislature,” Cushing said.

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.”

Currently, 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 was 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 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.”

The Internet, especially Maine Facebook pages, was full of lively conversation Friday about LePage’s proposal. Attempts were made to talk to residents who support LePage’s proposal, through Facebook, but those contacted declined to be interviewed.

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.

PLEDGE TO CONTACT THEIR REPS

Both Kast and Halvorsen said they would contact their representatives in the Legislature and ask them not to eliminate funding for MPBN. MPBN has contact information for legislators posted on its website.

Charlie Wynott of Portland said he had already contacted several state officials to ask that the funding not be cut, and he’s signed an online petition against the proposal as well.

Wynott, who has been a public proponent for medical marijuana in Maine, said he worries especially that cuts to MPBN would hurt disabled people and people who are housebound.

“I think cutting that funding would cripple the state, because it affects so many people who have few other ways to get information, to be connected,” said Wynott, 48. “I think cutting the state money to MPBN would be devastating.”

Staff writers Beth Quimby and Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com