AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee voted unanimously late Thursday night to reject Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to eliminate all state funding for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, saying the issue had become a “political football.”
Several committee members spoke at a late Thursday night work session about the service MPBN provides as the anchor for the statewide emergency broadcast alert system and its unique role as a statewide radio and TV network.
“At the moment it is the only radio capacity for the Allagash in English,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake. He said he would “always” support some state funding for MPBN so rural areas of the state would be able to receive public radio and TV programs.
Key to the unanimous support of the committee was an amendment drafted by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, that directs Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett and the Maine Emergency Management Agency to work with MPBN to determine what it costs to provide the statewide emergency-alert system. The amendment also would require MPBN to report on its future plans and how it might use its transmission bandwidth to provide other services to the state for a fee.
“Over the next five years the appropriations to MPBN will gradually be reduced and replaced with a fee-for-services agreement,” Katz said regarding his amendment.
Several panel members said while they supported the amendment, they did not want that to be interpreted as a lack of support for state funding of MPBN.
“I don’t want my support to be construed as a lack of support for Maine Public Broadcasting,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston. “I, for one, think that an appropriation is a good thing.”
Rep. Tyler Clark, R-Easton, agreed with the amendment and the decision to restore funding, but he defended the governor for making the proposal to eliminate state funding of MPBN.
“In a time of struggling economics and having to re-prioritize everything, I don’t think it’s wrong to look at MPBN,” he said. “I like the idea of fee-for-service. I think it is better for both the state and MPBN to say we are providing this service and this is the cost.”
Martin said the study and eventual shift to fee-for-service is a good way to address the issue, which he said has become a political football since the governor proposed eliminating funding a year ago, which eventually resulted in a $200,000 funding cut to the network.
“Over the last year and a half it has been very clear that this has been, unfortunately, a political football,” agreed Rep. Kathleen Chase, R-Wells. “It just makes much more sense to move forward in a contractual manner and say this is exactly the services we are providing and there are no gray areas there.”
Committee members praised the new president of MPBN, Mark Vogelzang, for his willingness to work toward a new relationship between the network and the state. He said the committee’s action is a good outcome for MPBN.
“We are looking for new ways to work with the state of Maine,“ he said in an interview following the vote. ”I am especially pleased that we have had that $1.7 million restored. It’s not all of the money we had asked for and it will still be about a 13 percent decline over this year into next year, so it will be a tough one. But, still, we are happy.”
Vogelzang said the network will work with state officials over the summer months to explore other areas where the network can provide services to the state other than the emergency alert system. For example, he said, the network has substantial bandwidth capacity in its statewide digital transmission system and noted the state might be able to use some of that capacity for a fee.
The report is due to the committee in September, so the panel can draft any needed legislation for the new Legislature to consider in January.