Bill ties MPBN state aid to statewide coverage

Posted Jan. 28, 2009, at 9:11 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Washington County’s lone state senator said Wednesday he has garnered strong bipartisan support for legislation he introduced this week to address concerns arising from Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s plan to turn off towers broadcasting to Washington County and the St. John Valley.

The bill by state Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, would require, as a condition for receiving state funding, that MPBN operate all of its radio towers and television transmitters or an equivalent network providing equal or better broadcast coverage.

Led by Raye, a bipartisan coalition of three dozen lawmakers representing all 16 Maine counties is sponsoring the legislation. Among the co-sponsors Down East are Reps. David Burns, R-Whiting; Howard McFadden, R-Dennysville; Anne Perry, D-Calais; and Dianne Tilton, R-Harrington; as well as Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Donald Soctomah.

“I am very pleased with the strong support among legislators on both sides of the aisle and from every county in Maine for ensuring that any action taken by MPBN will have a uniform statewide impact — not single out certain areas on the basis of some subjective view that they are somehow less important,” Raye said Wednes-day.

“I have been working closely with Senator Raye,” said Gov. John Baldacci on Wednesday, “and [I] share his goal of maintaining public broadcasting service to all of Maine. I do not agree with MPBN’s decision to shut down the towers in Calais and Fort Kent, and have been looking at alternatives to keep those towers operat-ing.”

MPBN officials are reviewing Raye’s legislation and, according to Jim Dowe, MPBN’s president and CEO, MPBN is looking at its options.

“We are working diligently internally, looking at every possible source of funding,” Dowe said Wednesday. “And I must say we are working in a very positive way with the governor’s office to try to find some assistance.” He would not comment specifically on Raye’s bill.

MPBN announced in December that it would close the transmitters in Aroostook and Washington counties as part of a cost-cutting measure that included layoffs and pay reductions. The shutdown was to have taken effect Jan. 15, but Dowe told lawmakers earlier this month that MPBN would delay shutdown of the two remote towers until Feb. 28 in hopes of a deal.

The initial announcement by MPBN to close towers in the most remote parts of Maine drew the ire of lawmakers across the state, notably Raye and state Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake.

Dowe said earlier that those towers were selected simply because they serve the smallest audiences among MPBN listeners.

Although it appears that everyone is working to keep MPBN on the air in the two affected counties, Raye said, he introduced the legislation to stave off any similar problems.

“There may be other budgetary tight times down the road and I don’t want any future leader of public broadcasting to repeat this,” Raye said. “To me it is an unacceptable notion that to achieve savings based on some subjective measure that some parts of the state are less important than others. If there is going to be pain it’s got to be equitable.”

Raye’s bill, LD 266, has been referred to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. A hearing date has been set for 1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12. The hearing will be held in the Education Committee room at 202 Cross Office Building, adjacent to the State House, in Augusta.

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