AUGUSTA, Maine — Supporters of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network on Monday urged lawmakers to reject a LePage administration proposal to eliminate all state funding for the television and radio network.
Faced with another shortfall in an already tight budget, Gov. Paul LePage has proposed diverting the roughly $4 million slated to flow to MPBN during the next biennium to other programs.
Administration officials have questioned whether the state should continue to subsidize MPBN at a time when social service programs are on the chopping block due to budget cuts.
But MPBN officials as well as some of the network’s ardent supporters called the proposal short-sighted given the important cultural and educational role public television and public radio stations play in a large, rural state like Maine.
“MPBN offers a broad window to the world. Please do not shutter that window,” said Meg Villareal of Brunswick, a supporter who was involved in the early days of public television in Maine.
Roughly 20 percent of MPBN’s funding comes from the state of Maine. But contrary to popular belief, the network is prohibited from using taxpayer dollars to pay for programming or salaries.
Instead, state money is used to maintain the five television transmission stations and seven radio transmitters that carry MPBN’s signals to all corners of the state. In addition to programming, those towers carry the state’s emergency alert messages.
Members of MPBN’s senior management and board of trustees urged members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee to fully fund the network rather go along with the governor’s “immediate, precipitous and pre-emptive funding cuts.”
“Of tremendous concern to me,” said MPBN board chairman Craig Denekas, “is that this proposal attempts to address a complicated matter in extreme and unexplained haste, especially when it would be to the immediate detriment of thousands upon thousands of Maine citizens who rely upon MPBN every day.”
Of course, MPBN is not the only public broadcasting service facing potential budget cuts. Republicans in Congress have targeted federal funding for the Public Broadcasting Service, and other public networks have been under fire for some time from conservatives who view their news coverage as having a liberal slant.
LePage has, at times, had a turbulent relationship with MPBN reporters as well as with other media outlets within the State House press corps. But administration officials have said the proposed cuts to MPBN are intended to blunt the cuts on other essential programs.
Many of those who spoke Monday, however, said MPBN fills a unique and important niche by offering commercial-free cultural and educational programming that cannot be found elsewhere.
“Maine has a long history of supporting culture,” said Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls, which underwrites some MPBN programming. “Our government supports museums, libraries, schools, parks, recreation programs, even public theater. MPBN is all of those things wrapped into one.”
Several speakers said that since the switch to digital television, many residents of rural Maine who do not have cable television have lost access to television. For them, MPBN’s radio broadcasts and news programming are their link to the state.
“I cannot imagine why anybody would think of reducing funding for such a service,” said Pauline Boyce, who has no Internet access and cannot pick up television signals at her home near Deer Isle.
Only one individual spoke in support of LePage’s proposal to eliminate state funding for MPBN.
Mark Turek, chairman of the board of directors of the organization Maine Taxpayers United, said the state is in a tough financial situation and cutting funding to MPBN should be one part of the solution.
“We do need to make some cuts,” said Turek, who was the final person to address the committee. “They may be difficult cuts, but it is what we need to do and what a lot of taxpayers are asking for.”