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Republicans Restore Some Funding for Public Broadcasting

Lawmakers are debating pieces of Gov. Walker's proposed two-year budget

Republicans in Madison have dialed back one of Gov. Walker’s spending cuts for public radio and television. The Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday voted to reduce state aid to the Educational Communications Board by about $2.3 million. Walker had proposed a cut about twice that size.

The Educational Communications Board partners with UW Extension to operate Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television. The board also manages emergency alert systems and develops Wisconsin-specific educational materials for K12 schools. WUWM in Milwaukee is not affiliated with the ECB.

In his new two-year budget, Gov. Walker proposed cutting funding for the board by about $5 million and eliminating 16 positions. A non-partisan legislative analysis found the ECB and stations would not be able to raise enough money to make up for the lost state aid. Republicans on Joint Finance agreed. They decided half the governor’s cut made sense.

Rep. Dean Knudson said Wisconsin funds public stations here at a much higher level than other states.

“They very much need to increase the private fundraising and get on it as soon as possible. So I hope through this process, that message gets out – get out there and be asking the people that are supporters of Wisconsin Public TV and Wisconsin Public Radio to step up and get to where most states are, which is much stronger support for that and don’t rely as much on taxpayer dollars,” Knudson says.

Knudson remarked he believes public media holds an ideological bias, but it’s not a reason to completely defund the service.

Another Republican on the committee, Sen. Luther Olsen, praised public radio and television, especially the PBS blockbuster “Downtown Abbey.”

“Ripon, where I live, the library has viewings of ‘Downton Abbey’ where people go and watch it together and discuss it. So I am thankful today that we are going to restore some funding for public radio and public TV,” Olsen says.

But restoring some funding wasn’t enough for Democrats on the budget committee. Rep. Chris Taylor warned against any reduction to the system that provides educational materials for kids in Wisconsin schools.

“At a time when schools are facing these squeezes, this is just a little bit of help for our schools, really interesting curriculum, really interesting materials for our kids to use. So why would we want to cut that?” Taylor says.

While Republican leaders claimed cuts to the ECB would not directly affect programming, Democrats argued it would only be a matter of time.

“Programming might not be cut today. But if you’re gonna be cutting support staff that surrounds some programming, eventually the programming is gonna go away,” says Sen. Jon Erpenbach. “I don’t want Wisconsin Public Radio to turn into somebody who does a time and temperature check at the top and bottom of every hour and then we cut away to national programming.”

While the committee opted to restore some funding for the ECB in the next biennium, the question of public support for stations is not completely settled. Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and WUWM all have financial ties to the UW System, and Gov. Walker wants to cut aid to the system by $300 million. The Joint Finance Committee will take up that item in coming weeks.