May 17, 2011

Dozens speak against plan to cut funding for Maine public broadcasting

Gov. Paul LePage's proposal to save $4 million would be 'penny-wise and pound-foolish,' one lawmaker says.

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Olenka Folda has no computer or television. She lives in Brooklin, in Hancock County, and listens to Maine Public Broadcasting Network radio shows all day.

"I love the radio, and MPBN is on when I cook, when I sew and when I clean, and I can dance to it," she told lawmakers Monday. "If it bit the dust, it would be a terrible loss, not only to me, but to the tens of thousands of citizens of Maine who love it."

Folda was one of nearly 30 people who testified before the Legislature's Appropriations Committee in opposition to a proposal by Gov. Paul Le-Page to eliminate state funding for the radio and television network.

Last week, while presenting changes to its budget proposal, the administration recommended cutting the $4 million that the network expected to receive from the state over two years starting July 1. That cut represents almost 20 percent of MPBN's operating funds.

The proposal surprised network officials, who specifically reached out to the LePage administration during the transition period after LePage was elected and before he was sworn in to office, said John Isacke, vice president and chief financial officer for MPBN. "Believe me when I say that we were surprised and shocked by what transpired last Wednesday" when the proposed cut was announced, he said. "We thought we had completed the biennial appropriation cycle, only to find that at the eleventh hour we had to start anew."

LePage's finance commissioner, Sawin Millett, told the Appropriations Committee last week that instead of eliminating Clean Election Act funds for gubernatorial elections, LePage would cut the state funding for MPBN.

The governor has said his proposal has nothing to do with his past criticism of the network; he says he needed $4 million to balance the budget, and that matches MPBN's allocation for the two years. The Appropriations Committee took two hours Monday afternoon to hear testimony on the budget changes, which also would remove the state's public notices from newspapers to save $200,000 in the budget's second year, and would delay the implementation of a new billing system in the Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly all of the testimony focused on MPBN.

One person spoke in favor of the funding cut. Mark Turek of Randolph, chairman of the board of directors of Maine Taxpayers United, said LePage had to make tough choices to balance the budget. "As we all know, our state is in a difficult financial situation," he said. "We strongly support this cut."

But Rep. Ben Chipman, an independent from Portland, said the budget includes $200 million in tax cuts, so it's difficult to understand why the state can't find $2 million a year to support public broadcasting. "It's a drop in the bucket," he said. "I think it would be incredibly penny-wise and pound-foolish."

Others said that if the state wants to discontinue funding for MPBN, the issue should be vetted more fully by lawmakers.

"We won't shrink from a sincere discussion with the people of Maine and their elected officials about the role of public broadcasting in their lives and how it should be funded," said Craig Denekas, chairman of the MPBN board of trustees.

"However, a complete and immediate defunding of public broadcasting in Maine, as currently proposed by the governor, precludes an ability even to entertain the discussion," Denekas said.

The proposal will be discussed by lawmakers over the coming weeks as they continue work on the two-year, $6.1 billion budget that goes into effect July 1.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: scover@mainetoday.com

 

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