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Legislative Committee Leaning Toward Funding Public Radio
By Martin Kaste
May 6, 1999
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State funding for public broadcasting is still alive at the State Capitol, despite efforts by Governor Ventura and some House Republicans to phase it out. The Minnesota Senate wants to put almost $3 million a year into public TV and radio, while the House spends about $1 million less. Most insiders say House and Senate negotiators will probably end up splitting the difference on the total amounts, but there may be more of a fight over whether any of that money should go to Minnesota Public Radio.

THE LEGISLATIVE SESSION STARTED OUT looking grim for public broadcasters. The new governor, a former on-air personality at KFAN and KSTP, made it clear he didn't sympathize with non-profit broadcasters.
Ventura: I come from the other side of radio, where we have to go out and we earn it, and we have to get advertising and we do those things without being the beneficiary of public subsidy.
The new Republican majority in the House also talked about "weaning" public broadcasters from state money, as fiscal conservatives looked for ways to hold down state spending and increase the size of potential tax cuts. But as the legislative session heads into its final week, public broadcasters haven't done that badly. The DFL-controlled Senate voted to provide almost as much money as public TV and radio stations asked for; the Republican-controlled House provides about one-third less money, but it does keep funding flowing to all the usual recipients - with one exception.
Osskopp: We've got a little piglet who's been at the nipple for a long time. We need to slide that hog away from the nipple so that there's a little more room for another new piglet.
The "hog" which Representative Mike Osskopp referred to during that House floor debate two weeks ago is Minnesota Public Radio. MPR is a 29-station, $23 million-a-year operation with a $110 million endowment. MPR doesn't depend on state money for operating expenses, but over the last decade it has taken money for capital expenditures; usually a few hundred-thousand dollars at a time for new transmitters. Representative Osskopp says MPR's request this year for another $950,000 smacks of greed.
Osskopp: Minnesota Public Radio had the courage to come before our committee, and say, "Take a million dollars away from the children in your K-12 budget," or "Take a million dollars away from the senior citizens in the health and human services budget."
The House funding bill contains no money for MPR, even though Osskopp and his fellow Republicans have made a point of maintaining funding for non-MPR public radio stations, at reduced levels. Osskopp, a commercial broadcaster in private life, says it makes sense for the state to support the less-prosperous, unaffiliated stations.

It's an argument that strikes Will Haddeland as ironic. Haddeland is MPR's Vice-President of Public Affairs, and he wonders why a fiscally conservative Republican seems to want to reward stations for being dependent on the state.
Haddeland: I feel it totally inconsistent with his free-market principles and economies of getting people off state funds, to be supporting the element of public broadcasting that is the most dependent upon state funds, and the least entrepreneurial.
MPR has a reputation for using methods unusual for public broadcasters, such as for-profit merchandising companies. Recently the company took that non-traditional approach even further by proposing the Legislature eliminate state funding for public broadcasting altogether. In return, the state would allow taxpayers to donate directly to public broadcasting with a check-off system on their tax returns. The MPR proposal does not specify how the money would be distributed.

Other public broadcasters have distanced themselves from the MPR proposal. Al Harmon is a public TV general manager in Duluth, and president of the Minnesota Public TV Association.
Harmon: MPR speaks for MPR, and doesn't speak for public TV, and being sure that we make that distinction is part of our ongoing effort to educate legislators.
Harmon says the tax check-off idea deserves to be explored, but he says MPR showed bad timing in proposing such a radical new approach just when other stations are in a last-ditch fight for the state money they depend on. He says public TV stations will have to reduce some of their services even if the larger Senate appropriation of $4.2 million is approved, and if the House gets its way at $2.6 million. Harmon says the effect could be drastic, especially for public TV stations in smaller towns like Brainerd.
Harmon: It may mean an end to their local news broadcast. In Austin, it may well mean that it will - in time - go dark.
Senate negotiators say they intend to fight hard to push the House to accept higher funding levels for public broadcasting, but at least one Senator says will be difficult to convince the House to include money for MPR. He says freezing out MPR may be the price the Senate has to pay to increase funding for stations that need the money more.

Whether Governor Ventura will see this as an acceptable compromise is an open Question. A Ventura spokesman says a veto of the public-broadcasting spending is Possible with or without money for MPR.