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WVPB: State funding cut means we would be going off the air

WHEELING — Gov. Jim Justice’s proposal to cut all state funding to West Virginia Public Broadcasting has the public service media group weighing its options — including possible ownership by a university or creating a nonprofit.

On Thursday, Executive Director Scott Finn of the Educational Broadcasting Authority urged members of the Senate Finance Committee to maintain funding for public broadcasting, despite the governor’s proposed cut.

If that’s not possible, though, Finn asked for a chance to plan its future.

“What we’re asking for, basically, at the end of the day — is time,” he said. “All we’re asking you to consider (is) if there is an option to transfer us to an independent nonprofit, or a university or something else,” he said.

Being owned by a university is the most viable option of the two, according to Finn’s presentation. That’s because public broadcasting and public universities share a “matching educational mission” that would help ease the transfer of ownership, he said.

And a university would provide a strong revenue source, compared to the nonprofit option that’s certain to face the usual, fundraising challenges, according to Finn.

The governor’s “current proposal could require laying off almost all employees, which would result in shutting down the stations, losing $5 million in matching funds, and endangering tens of millions in assets,” Finn said. He was referring to Justice’s proposed $4.6 million cut — 47 percent of the media group’s total budget. If the Legislature approves, the cut would be effective July 1.

Although the $4.6 million represents less than half its annual budget, “we believe we will go off the air,” Finn said. That’s because the matching federal and private funds of $5 million would go away, as well.

Going off the air means WVPBS’ numerous assets, including its buildings and its network of 27 radio and television transmission towers, will fall into disrepair and lose value, Finn said. There would be no more broadcasts of“Mountain Stage,” the weekly, two-hour, live-performance program that’s known as “West Virginia’s calling card to the world,” bringing in $1 million per year in direct, economic impact, he added.

And, there would be no more children’s programming, including the new, 24-hour-per-day PBS Kids channel, Finn said. The state Lottery Commission would lose the $250,000 per year that it saves by broadcasting its lottery drawings on the public channel, and the state would lose 600 hours of coverage per year of the state Legislature.

Balancing the 2017-18 budget seems to have divided the Legislature along party lines. Justice, a Democrat, delivered his original budget proposal Feb. 8, and immediately Republican leaders expressed disappointment in the plan they said relies too heavily on tax increases in order to make up for an estimated deficit of at least $500 million.

Last week, however, Justice updated his own budget proposal to include more potential spending cuts along with increased fees and taxes, while noting Republicans, although critical of his ways, haven’t come up with viable alternatives.

On Friday, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, announced Justice had adopted the GOP’s initiative to sweep accounts — meaning Justice had decided to use a $120 million fund that’s been at the governors’ disposal in order to make up for the $123 million gap the state faces for the current fiscal year.

Using that money would mean not tapping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund, as Justice proposed Feb. 8.

Now, after weeks of discussion, among the cuts that still remain is eliminating state funding to West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Also among the goveror’s $26 million in cuts were 4.4 percent cuts in state funding to WVU and Marshall University; cutting the state’s $3.7 million funding for eight regional education service agencies; and $4.3 million to the state’s Division of Culture and History.

Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, asked Finn to share his plan for exit.

“We believe we can operate on less money. We’re going to have to, but we would like to have the conversation about what services the state is going to continue to support,” Finn said.

Finn’s exit plan includes the state giving the media group one year to study how it will transition from its state funding into a different ownership.

He asks that the state-funded staff among its approximately 71 employees be reduced over two years; and he requests the state agree that the authority owns its assets, although they were bought and built with federal, state and private money.

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