Pressler’s bill also favors appointing a panel to plan trust fund

This article contains links to related sections of the text of the bill itself and to Sen. Pressler's introductory remarks.

Both the new draft bill in the Senate, released [May 9, 1996], and the latest version of its counterpart bill in the House would leave the ticklish questions of setting up and capitalizing a trust fund to a new study commission.

In the meantime, both would authorize federal payments to CPB of $250 million a year through fiscal 2000.

For pubcasters, these authorization figures mesh pleasingly with the most recent omnibus appropriations bill, April 29, which appropriated the same amount for CPB in fiscal 1998.

The new Senate authorization bill, put forth by Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) on May 9, would establish a Public Broadcasting Trust Fund similar to the one proposed in February by House telecom subcommittee Chairman Jack Fields (R-Tex.), but leaves the details to a two-year study by a 12-member Commission on Public Broadcasting Empowerment.

Fields also is talking about delegating the detail work to an appointed panel, after running into disagreements among pubcasters over certain aspects of the trust fund, according to pubcasting lobbyists.

Pressler and Fields themselves disagree as to the initial source of funding for the trust fund. The only source acceptable to Fields has been an auction of vacant channels unused by public TV around the country.

Pressler doesn't specify in his bill how the trust fund would be capitalized, but he said on the Senate floor that the capital could come from auctions of Advanced TV channels for digital TV transmission. He referred to his major spectrum bill, introduced the same day in the Senate, which encourages auctions of all available spectrum. TV broadcasters would be able to buy ATV channels for the digital transition, but would get their money back when/if they turn in their old analog channels afterwards. They would not have to compete for ATV channels, but they would pay a price established in other auctions.

What Dole told Del

Presidential candidate and Majority Leader Bob Dole, who also advocates ATV auctions, this month linked them with pubcasting. Dole told a Capitol Hill gathering May 3 that a portion of the auction proceeds should go toward supporting public broadcasting.

Dole's remark came during an alumni reception for Washburn University's law school, which he attended some years before NPR President Del Lewis. Spying Lewis at the event, Dole raised the idea of ATV auction proceeds going to pubcasting, according to NPR.

NPR and public TV lobbyists have remained officially neutral on this ATV auctions issue all along, according to Vice President, National Affairs Mary Lou Joseph, but they have consistently maintained that pubcasting would make a fine beneficiary of the proceeds if Congress chooses to auction the ATV channels.

At last report, Fields was still proposing to capitalize the trust fund with up to $1 billion in proceeds from auctions of vacant TV channels that are now reserved for noncommercial use around the country, according to a pubcasting official. But Fields would permit the system to find additional sources of capital to invest in the trust fund, the official said.

The draft that Fields marks up in coming weeks probably will not include the controversial provision permitting stations to receive payment for airing programs, according to the official. Public TV stations were not able to reach a consensus for or against that provision, so Fields left it out.

Appoint somebody to figure it out

At Current press time last week, Fields was consulting with House Republican leaders about his authorization bill, according to pubcasting lobbyists and station executives following the legislation.

With fewer and fewer working days left in the legislative session, Fields was proposing to leave unresolved issues about the trust fund to a commission, though lobbyists declined to discuss Fields' intentions.

Pressler's bill would give a commission two years to come back to Congress with recommendations for alternative methods of long-term funding for pubcasting, ways to guarantee citizens' universal access to pubcasting and stimulate regional production centers outside the major cites, and means of improving system efficiency.

The commission would have 12 unpaid members--four from Congress (a senator and a representative from each major party), plus eight citizens possessing expertise in pubcasting, education, entertainment, finance or investment, appointed by the President.

Pressler's bill, like the original Fields draft, permits pubcasters with dual channels in a single metro area to sell off one of them or operate it commercially and pocket the earnings. But if stations do so, their future subsidy from the national trust fund will depend on whether they contribute some of the proceeds to it. NPR in particular has pressed for Congress to impose that condition.

The Senate bill also allows a public station and a commercial station to arrange a channel swap without the FCC considering competing license applications.

In his floor remarks, the senator from South Dakota championed the interests of rural areas and small cities, insisting that their stations should share in revenues from enhanced underwriting and that public broadcasting should support program production outside of the biggest cities.

"I would like to see public broadcasting be a self-sustaining operation," Pressler said, "but I will not forego congressional oversight responsibilities, nor support a disbursement of funds from any trust fund until I am satisfied that there are legal and contractual safeguards in place that will protect the financial and programming interests of small-city and rural broadcasters."

Senate rescues ITVS

Both the Pressler and Fields bills are mere authorizations, compared to the much more concrete appropriations bills that usually follow along behind.

For fiscal 1998, however, CPB's $250 million appropriation already was enacted in a major money bill April 29.

Notably, Senate friends of the Independent Television Service rescued it from a five-word phrase inserted in the House appropriations bill, which would have neutralized the ongoing mandate that CPB support an independent production service, according to ITVS. Those five words were gone when the bill came out of House-Senate conference.

The omnibus bill--the last of a series of continuing resolutions that have (mostly) kept the federal government operating this year--also included $15.5 million for the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program this year and $21.5 million for the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Progam (TIIAP), which aids nonprofit uses of the infohighway. Both PTFP and TIIAP are administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

What's next? This week, when hundreds of pubradio folks descend on D.C., NPR will be recommending these top objectives, says Mary Lou Joseph:

Web page posted May 11, 1996
Copyright 1996 by Current Publishing Committee


Once the loudest critic of pubcasting, Pressler took on the mantle of its fiscal savior.


Text of the bill.

The senator's introductory remarks.

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