Zeroing Out MaineAirs

Posted March 29, 2009, at 8:35 p.m.

When the Maine Public Broadcasting Network threatened to stop radio and television broadcasts to parts of Washington and Aroostook counties temporarily, the outcry and condemnation was swift. Not so with a proposal from the Department of Labor to eliminate state funding for a service that broadcasts news and other information for the visually impaired. Unlike the residents of specific counties, Maine’s blind and visually impaired residents are spread throughout the state. That, however, does not mean that ensuring their access to information is any less important.

At issue is a $35,000 cut proposed for the budget of the Maine Audio Information and Reading Service, or MaineAirs. Through the service, hundreds of volunteers read daily and weekly newspapers and regional magazines for broadcast throughout the state. Because it has the support of so many volunteers, MaineAirs provides an important service for very little cost. It’s annual budget is about $100,000, so the proposed cut is more than a third of its budget.

For a population that too often already is isolated, cutting off access to local news, whether it be about a local election, the town budget, a high school sports victory or employment opportunities, furthers that disconnection. The Iris Network, which operates MaineAirs, estimates that the broadcasts reach 40,000 blind and visually impaired individuals in Maine. Many don’t have access to computers and the adaptive technology necessary to convert print to audio.

The Legislature’s Labor Committee voted to restore nearly $270,000 in funding for the Division of the Blind and Visually Impaired, but because of an error in drafting the budget, MaineAirs was not part of that funding. Now advocates are seeking ways to have the $35,000 restored.

In fact, the elimination of the $35,000 from the MaineAirs budget is not just a cut, but a complete elimination of state funding. The rest of its money comes from grants and donations.

If, as the governor asked of each department, the Department of Labor cut 10 percent from MaineAirs, it still would receive $31,500 from the state, not zero.

In these difficult financial times, many worthy programs will be cut. But weakening a service that connects the blind and visually impaired to their communities seems counterproductive.

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