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Time to examine public television’s role in Idaho government

Time to examine public television’s role in Idaho government

Wayne Hoffman
July 6, 2009
Wayne Hoffman
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July 6, 2009

Ronald Reagan once quipped that a government agency “is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.” Government just doesn’t contract as readily as it grows, even in the face of adversity, competing demands or changing times. Government bureaucrats and the elected officials who employ them would rather add programs or raise taxes than get rid of something less important or no longer needed.

It is, therefore, a tad amusing to watch state lawmakers mollycoddle every state agency while brainstorming creative new ways to fund the Idaho State Police and the Department of Parks and Recreation after the Legislature snagged more than $20 million in fuel tax revenue from the agencies and diverted it to highway maintenance. The state police on Wednesday recommended lawmakers raise fees and taxes and surcharges in order to close the funding gap.

It would have been more daring had the state police suggested closing some state agencies that are superfluous compared to having law enforcement patrolling the state’s highways.

Take, for example, Idaho Public Television. The state-owned broadcasting network does a good job, but is it necessary in the 21st century? And do taxpayers really need to spend $1.6 million a year to continue it in the face of competing demands?

When Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, lawmakers argued that the country needed a venue to dispense knowledge to the masses, and public television could provide it. But that was before the Information Age. The Internet and oodles of commercial television stations now belt out as much informational programming as Idaho Public Television. Entire channels are devoted to science and health and history – even cooking and travel and golf.

The problem with Idaho Public Television is it does its job visibly well, and it has adapted to the times, now transmitting programming on four distinct channels. It’s hard to not notice programs like Outdoor Idaho, which are extraordinarily high-quality productions. General Manager Peter Morrill says about 300,000 people tune in to watch Idaho Public Television every week. More than 22,000 people gave money to public broadcaster during the last fiscal year, Morrill said. Just last week, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gave Idaho Public Television an award for its gavel-to-gavel of the Idaho Legislature. And while many states heavily subsidize their state-owned broadcaster, Idaho does not. Just about a quarter of Idaho Public Television’s budget comes from state taxpayers.

But facts are stubborn things, as John Adams said. It’s a fact that much has changed since the mid 1960s when President Lyndon Johnson argued that educational television could help foster “the enlightenment of the people.” It’s a fact that every day, Idaho Public Television competes with local broadcasters who are just barely hanging on in a tough economic environment. Government is, in effect, not only subsidizing the competition, it is the competition. It’s a fact that while Idaho Public Television broadcasts one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Doctor Who, I get to travel vicariously through time and space on the for-profit Sci-Fi channel, making Idaho Public Television’s investment in the program, dare I say it, redundant.

Last winter, the Legislature saved Idaho taxpayers $29,500 by not funding the state Women’s Commission because it was no longer needed – a conclusion it could have reached 20 years ago. Idaho lawmakers now need to ask themselves what other programs no longer merit continuation.

Now, if you’ve read down this far and you’ve concluded that I have a childhood grudge against Big Bird, you’re wrong. I like Idaho Public Television, but I’m not convinced that it's a proper role of government to fund or operate it. If Idahoans like Idaho Public Television, too, they’ll figure out a way to continue it short of making a government function. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask tough questions about its future, lest we fail to question any other government endeavor. No government program is so special, so unique, so valuable that it deserves the eternal funding from taxpayers even while unquestionably more important programs like the state police struggle for funding.

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