Justice changes course on Public Broadcasting cuts

For The Inter-Mountain

WHEELING — Gov. Jim Justice has changed course, and now hopes to give West Virginia Public Broadcasting the time its leaders want to transition into ownership by West Virginia University.

On Friday, Justice said he was reinstating the full $4.6 million in state funding for the Educational Broadcasting Authority in his proposed fiscal year 2018 budget .

“Public broadcasting is important to our state and our people, and I don’t want to see it disappear,” Justice said in a news release. “We are working with President (E.) Gordon Gee to transition West Virginia’s Public Broadcasting into the WVU family.”

Justice’s cut proposed last month is about 47 percent of what the media group needs to operate, but its other $5 million in matching funds depends on state funding, Executive Director Scott Finn explained to legislators this month.

Losing state funding so abruptly would put them “off the air,” Finn explained. As Justice’s announcement came Friday, the group was in the process of making plans to shut down.

However, since Justice’s announcement Friday, the authority’s board of directors has postponed making a decision on 15 layoffs.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s assets include 27 radio and television transmission towers, as well as buildings. It broadcasts the world-renowned “Mountain Stage” two-hour, live-performance program; PBS Kids channel; coverage of the state Legislature, and more that either save or earn revenue for the state.

As finance committees in both houses continued hearing the funding needs of state agencies and state-funded organizations this month, Finn made a plea to legislators for time to plan the media group’s future.

“We are very pleased with today’s action by Gov. Justice,” said Susan Hogan of Wheeling, chair of Friends of WVPB. “We are equally pleased with the conversations that we have been having with the legislative leadership. Both the governor and Legislature have expressed their interest and support for public broadcasting.”

While the cut is off the table for the governor, there are still negotiations to be made during the last three weeks of the legislative session, as Republicans also have their say.

Republicans have supported the original cuts that Justice made, Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said.

During the first weeks of the legislative session, Republican leaders have urged Justice and Democrats to help them root out unnecessary expenditures rather than raising taxes and raising expenses, as Justice did in his proposal.

Justice’s proposed $4.5 billion fiscal year 2018 budget still relies heavily on tax increases to make up for an approximately $455 million shortfall, although it did include $26.6 million in cuts, including the cut to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. He later said he’d work with Republicans to identify additional cuts.

But Republicans have their own plan. Ferns and other Republican leaders presented a budget framework Monday that limits state spending to the projected $4.055 billion in general revenue for the upcoming fiscal year, according to the Associated Press.

“Our goal is to pass that tax reform proposal to give us a more sustainable revenue source … as well as restore some of the spending reductions that are in our proposed budget,” Ferns said. When asked if public broadcasting could be among possible restorations, he said, “There are a number of things like that we would be restoring with our surplus.”

The Republican budget’s framework includes restructuring state tax code, in part by eliminating income tax in favor of a general consumption tax.

The tax reform bill, Senate Bill 355 — titled “Creating the 2017 Tax Reform Act” — on Thursday passed the Senate Select Committee on Tax Reform where it was created.

Now, after some revisions, the act is headed to the Senate Finance Committee for review, according to the West Virginia Legislature website.

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