Turning the tide of state funding cuts in Florida

By Ben Mook

Florida Gov. Rick Scott challenged pubTV stations to prove their value to taxpayers.

A year after Florida’s public broadcasting stations lost all of their state funding through one swift stroke of Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s budget-cutting veto pen, something surprising happened: Pubcasters succeeded in convincing policy makers to put most of the money back in the 2013 state budget.

Scott and Florida’s legislature restored appropriations for public TV stations to near pre-veto levels — $3.9 million, or $307,447, per TV station — for the 2012–2013 budget that took effect July 1. The state’s 13 public radio stations were left to do without state funding for a second year, however.

Pubcasters and their advocates in the state capital credit the change of heart to help from sympathetic lawmakers, the governor’s willingness to change his mind and agreement by pubcasters to strengthen their case for support. Since state funds had historically been appropriated through the Florida Department of Education, pubcasters developed a public-relations and lobbying campaign based on their work on behalf of local schools.

“We were able to do this largely by educating the governor and his staff about the value of public broadcasting,” said lobbyist Melinda Kennedy. “We knew we had a challenge ahead of us, but we confronted it with knowledge that we had a strong case to make. It’s really a credit to the governor and his staff that they kept an open mind and were willing to listen.” Kennedy was hired by the Florida Public Broadcasting Service Inc., which represents public broadcasters in Tallahassee, the state capital.

The governor’s veto of 2011 state appropriations for public stations shocked pubcasters in Florida and beyond. Policymakers had already cut deeply into state funding to public broadcasting over several years, but complete elimination of the subsidies was unexpected. State appropriations for Florida’s public stations dropped $7.8 million from 2008–2011, a 62 percent reduction from previous funding levels, according to a 2011 study by progressive media-reform group Free Press.

Scott zeroed out the $4.8 million allocated for all public broadcasting in 2012 as part of a $615 million package of vetoes, saying that he was acting to reduce the state’s debt, reign in special-interest spending and ensure that tax dollars went to programs providing statewide benefit.

“People were shocked for sure,” said Janyth Righter, executive director of FPBS. “Even though you know there’s a good chance it could happen, when you have an appropriation for so long, you still kind of expect it to be there. But the decision really did galvanize the group to take the offensive.”

Even worse news came after FPBS began exploring its prospects for restoring the funding. “When we were vetoed, we looked way back into the legislative record to see how many times there had been a veto and the money was put back in the budget,” Righter said. “And we couldn’t find any — there were none.”

Public broadcasters went into this year’s legislative session swimming against the tide of a national trend — sharp cuts or complete elimination of state tax dollars allocated to public broadcasting stations across the nation. Policymakers in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and New Jersey had taken up or adopted proposals to zero out aid to public media.

According to Free Press, lawmakers in 24 states cut subsidies to public broadcasters by $85 million from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2012. That’s a 42 percent decline in spending on public media before the recession.

But when Florida Gov. Rick Scott zeroed out pubcasting’s appropriation, he left the door open for reinstating it. He challenged the field to prove its worth to state taxpayers. And, according to comments he made to the Palm Beach Post in April, pubcasters apparently succeeded.

“One of the groups that did well coming back with more information this year was public television stations,” Scott told the paper. “I said, ‘Go back and show us that there was a return on the money we are spending.’ And they did.”

In evaluating how to make the case for restoring state appropriations, pubcasters learned that many legislators were unaware of the support that local stations provide to educators, including the coursework they offer to help teachers meet continuing-education requirements and their tools for boosting student performance.

“With our education initiatives, we knew we had a valuable asset people were really using,” Righter said. “But . . . lawmakers didn’t really know all that we were doing. I don’t know how many times we heard, ‘We didn’t know you did that.’”

FPBS hired an outside PR firm to help draft a cohesive message about pubTV stations’ support for education and target it toward what lawmakers were looking for, Righter said.

“Even though we’re all in the media, we thought it would be helpful to get an outsider to look at what we do and help get the message out,” Righter said.

The sudden loss of state funding — which included about $60,000 for each public radio outlet — had pushed public stations to tighten budgets and ramp up development activities.

Managers at WJCT in Jacksonville, for example, began operating under the assumption that state money would never come back, said Michael Boylan, president of the TV/radio operation. For a limited time after the veto, WJCT ran a “give or it goes” campaign to raise funds.

Boylan was pleasantly surprised by the governor’s decision to change his mind and support public broadcasting’s state appropriation, and he sees a silver lining in the veto.

“An ancillary benefit of this is that it has helped us when we approach givers,” Boylan said. “We can say now that the government has deemed us appropriate to support, and we made believers out of the unbelievers.”

 The coming battle

Florida’s next 60-day general legislative session begins in March, but legislators start preliminary meetings on the 2013 budget this month. The challenges ahead for pubcasters’ representatives in Tallahassee will be to maintain the appropriation and to restore funding for public radio stations.

The appropriation provided for public TV’s education work came with a caveat: A follow-up study, conducted on a statewide basis, is examining “the effect of school-day contact with public broadcasting educational material on student learning growth.” The research is underway and must be delivered to legislators in June 2013.

Righter said FPBS is hopeful that it can build on the positive momentum and that study findings will bolster the case for continued support.

“We know having the funding puts us in a good place, but a precarious one as well,” Righter said. “We can’t afford to take anything for granted.”

For the coming year’s session, FPBS will renew efforts to restore state funding to Florida’s public radio stations. A proposal to include radio in the 2012 budget had been under consideration until late in this year’s session. It was withdrawn after lawmakers indicated that the case for spending education money on radio was much weaker than that made for public TV. FPBS plans to make another push to restore public radio’s appropriation next year.

“We’re looking at this as a two-year strategy with radio as the focus of the second year,” Kennedy said. “And I think now our message is resonating a little better in the legislature.”

Instead of requesting an appropriation from the education budget, pubradio’s advocates will propose that funds be allocated from the state’s emergency management or infrastructure budgets. The case will focus on the fact that the network of public radio stations reaches 99 percent of Florida’s population. With power outages and damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy fresh on everyone’s minds, the public’s ability to access public radio broadcasts through battery-powered radios may help to bolster the value of the state’s investment.

“The strategy is going to be a little different,” Boylan said. “We’re going to look at what we contribute to emergency services and show lawmakers that people do indeed turn to public radio in these situations.”

However the 2013 budget turns out, Righter said, Florida pubcasters have learned an important lesson about the need to communicate the value of their services, despite the decades-long history of support. Public broadcasters can no longer assume that lawmakers know what they get for the investment.

“I think in this day and time, we have to be proactive and really do something to show how we impact the community we’re interacting with,” Righter said. “We’re not going to take it for granted — anything can happen at any time.”

Questions, comments, tips? mook@current.org

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