CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice today announced plans to reinstate $4.6 million in his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year to fund West Virginia public broadcasting.
The Justice administration said it is working on a deal with West Virginia University to allow public broadcasting to soon become a fully integrated part of WVU. Next year’s budget allocation was described as a financial bridge to make the transition successful.
“I mean, really and truly, at the end of the day, I don’t want public broadcasting to leave,” Justice said during a public appearance today in the governor’s reception area.
“I don’t want that at all. It seems so insignificant. At the end of the day, it’s $4.5 million. If we can come to our good senses and pass these bills I am proposing, it will generate hundreds of millions for our state.”
If the state’s financial picture improves, Justice said, the proposed move of public broadcasting to WVU may prove unnecessary.
“We looked at WVU as an alternative, but I don’t really know that that will come to fruition,” he said. “But if it does great and if that’s just a bridge that’s fine too. It may be that we just keep public broadcasting right where it is.”
Justice stated his plans in a letter to Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead. The letter outlined various adjustments Justice would like to make to the budget he originally proposed.
Justice made a presentation outlining a new budget proposal at the end of February, but it did not recommend action on public broadcasting.
Justice’s initial budget presented on the first day of this year’s legislative session had proposed a $4.6 million cut to the Educational Broadcasting Authority, the agency responsible for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Mountain Stage and other programming.
Justice’s cut would have zeroed out state funding for the agency. Although the agency receives some funding from other sources such as foundations and donations, it stood to lose matching grants without the state funding. Leaders at the agency said without state funding, it couldn’t continue operations.
Because Justice recommended only $26.6 million in total cuts, some observers have questioned why the Educational Broadcasting’s budget was among the targets.
Today, Justice put out a statement saying he had a change of heart and a new strategy for public broadcasting.
“Public Broadcasting is important to our state and our people, and I don’t want to see it disappear,” Justice stated.
“We are working with President Gordon Gee to transition West Virginia’s Public Broadcasting into the WVU family. The programs on Public Broadcasting help promote our state to the world and educate our people.”
Ted Armbrecht, chairman of the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation, said those associated with public broadcasting are relieved and grateful. However, Armbrecht said the organization’s current setup as a centralized agency would be preferable to being under a university umbrella.
“We’re best where we are,” Armrecht said in a telephone interview today. “Changes to WVU or elsewhere can certainly be considered if that’s the only way to keep us alive.”
Armbrecht touted West Virginia Public Broadcasting as an invaluable news source to West Virginians through its television, radio and online efforts.
“More people know about the sausage-making going on at the Legislature than have ever known before because of us,” he said. “We’re indispensable to the state. If West Virginia has a story to tell, we’re the ones that are telling it.”
Susan B. Hogan, chairwoman of Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, issued a statement expressing pleasure over the governor’s decision.
“While the budget process is far from over, we are very pleased with today’s action by Governor Justice to restore to his budget funding for West Virginia Public Broadcasting,” Hogan stated.
“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. To our supporters, we say thank you, but keep the calls and e-mails coming as the budget process has only just begun.”
The budget is now largely in the hands of the Legislature, where the Republican majority has said it doesn’t believe it can spend more than the $4.055 billion revenue estimate. Legislative leaders say they’re still determining about $150 million in reduced spending as the last part of meeting that goal.
But legislators who were reacting to the governor’s announcement today sounded positive about the likelihood of continued funding for public broadcasting, at least for the coming fiscal year.
House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, reacting to the governor’s announcement through an interview near the Rotunda, said he’s receptive. Cowles said allies of public broadcasting have done a good job of explaining its value.
“It plays a vital role in transparency, open government, homeland security and a lot of other roles,” Cowles said. “I think they’ve done a good job working the halls and explaining the role and the mission of public broadcasting. And I think the members have come to understand that a big cut to them all at once is too much for them to survive.
“I think there’s a growing recognition that they should be transferred to whatever’s next.”
Earlier today, the Justice administration announced its desire for 15 of the 37 state foresters laid off last year to be called back to work.
The forestry workers were laid off over a $1.7 million shortfall in their own agency’s budget that came about largely because of a decrease in timber severance tax money.
The money financing the move is coming from positions currently vacant in the state Office of Miner’s Safety Health & Training. Justice will ask the legislature to carry over the transfer into the next budget year.
Friday’s news release said the Justice administration would work with the legislature, the Division of Forestry and industry to come up with a permanent funding solution. One of the options could include the reinstitution of the timber severance tax to the rate of 2.78 percent, the Justice administration said.