Public radio slated for budget cut

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Alaska's public radio stations would lose nearly $330,000 in state support under a proposed budget cut that could force some stations off the air.

The House Finance Committee's subcommittee on the Department of Administration also proposed a $1.7 million cut in longevity bonus grants, a program already short of money.

Rep. Gary Davis, the subcommittee's chairman, said the cuts announced on Thursday could be restored later in the budget process. Like other budget subcommittee chairmen, the Soldotna Republican was directed by House leaders to cut a specific amount from the department's operating budget.

In the Department of Administration's case, that target was $772,800, a goal Davis met to the dollar.

The Legislature's Republican majority wants to cut the budget by $30 million as a response to the state's budget gap, which is expected to exceed $700 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Bill Legere, the station manager of KTOO radio in Juneau, said cutting more than 10 percent of the $2.6 million the state spends on public radio would likely push some stations off a financial cliff. By losing state support, the stations would lose their eligibility for federal grants.

''It's quite a blow to the public radio system,'' Legere said.

Legere also said the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission would probably choose to eliminate grants to a few stations instead of cutting the entire system across the board. Without those grants, stations could be forced go off the air, he said.

Rep. Ramona Barnes, R-Anchorage, suggested that public radio could step up its fund-raising efforts and use a statewide campaign to help out small rural stations.

But Legere said local donors would be unlikely to support another community's radio station, and dismissed the idea that donations could replace the cut. He said donors have already stepped up to help offset previous cuts.

''It's the highest per-capita giving of anyplace in the nation,'' Legere said.

A similar cut died in subcommittee last year, although a proposal to eliminate state support for public television survived for a few weeks until a flood of public dismay prompted lawmakers to restore the money.

The reduction in longevity bonus grants is also a familiar budget tactic. In recent years lawmakers have used a low estimate of how much the monthly payments to Alaska seniors will cost. That has the effect of making the budget look smaller in the spring when lawmakers adjourn.

But the cost of the program is governed by a formula in law, and the Department of Administration often has to ask the Legislature for more money to finish out the fiscal year.

For instance, in the current year, lawmakers earmarked $55 million. That left the department about $1.4 million short for the fiscal year that ends June 30, said Allison Elgee, the department's deputy commissioner. The Legislature is considering a supplemental budget request.

Elgee said the exact cost of the program is hard to predict, but estimated that the subcommittee proposal for the coming year is about $1.1 million less than the department's best-case projection.

If the program runs out of money, the department would simply stop mailing out longevity bonus checks, Commissioner Bob Poe said.

''That's never happened,'' Poe said.

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