WASHINGTON — Public television and radio broadcasters are bracing for their most difficult budget battle in a decade as the House considers a measure that would slash more than $200 million from national programming, educational grants and local station operations.
Late Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would reduce next year's federal allocation to public broadcasting by 46%. The measure would cut $100 million from next year's budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private nonprofit that distributes federal funds to local stations. The CPB funds make up about 15% of public broadcasting revenue.
Money earmarked to help local stations undergo digital conversion and to upgrade PBS' satellite system would also be cut. And funds for public television's "Ready to Learn" programs -- shows like "Sesame Street," "Reading Rainbow" and "Postcards From Buster" -- are on the chopping block.
The full House is expected to take up the bill next week. The measure will get resolved later in the summer, when the House and Senate meet to reconcile budget legislation.
Public broadcasters said the proposed cuts represented the greatest threat to the stability of public television and radio since 1995, when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich attempted to eliminate federal financing of the system.
"We see this as a direct attack on public broadcasting in America," said John Lawson, president of the Assn. of Public Television Stations.
Democrats, who succeeded in restoring $400 million in federal funding for the 2008 fiscal year, view the cuts as a politically motivated rebuke of a public broadcasting system seen by some Republicans as too liberal. They vowed to launch a grass-roots effort to fight the measure.
This is "ideological extremism that threatens to maim a treasured institution," Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said.
"The Public Broadcasting System represents the last stronghold of quality child-oriented programming. Does the Republican Party really want to give Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and Clifford The Big Red Dog the ax?" he asked.
Supporters of the measure said the cuts were driven by a difficult fiscal situation, not partisanship. "We had to make tough choices by reconciling competing priorities with the resources available," Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) said in a statement, adding that the bill did "a good job in serving the American people."
But National Public Radio's executive vice president, Ken Stern, said the measure could have a dramatic effect on small radio stations with audiences that lack the financial means to make up the shortfall through local donations. "For rural and minority stations, many of them may not be able to survive the cuts," Stern said. "This could be devastating."
The proposed cuts come amid growing turmoil at the corporation. In recent months, Kenneth Tomlinson, the Republican chairman of CPB's board of directors, has aggressively pushed to add more conservative programming at PBS, saying he believes the system suffers from political lopsidedness.
He hired a consultant last year to monitor the content of a public affairs program anchored by Bill Moyers, and the New York Times reported Thursday that Tomlinson and his predecessor gave contracts to two Republican lobbyists last year without informing the rest of the board.
The contracts are being investigated by the CPB's inspector general, Kenneth A. Konz, who launched an inquiry into Tomlinson's practices at the request of two Democratic congressmen, David R. Obey of Wisconsin and John D. Dingell of Michigan.
CPB spokesman Eben Peck said Tomlinson would have no comment while the investigation was in progress.
"We are confident that the IG's report will conclude that all personnel arrangements were and continue to be made in accordance with the statutes and rules governing CPB's use of funds," Peck said.
But Dingell said that the hiring of the two lobbyists -- who reportedly provided advice on a bill Tomlinson opposed that would have given stations more representation on the CPB board -- demonstrated that the chairman was misusing his position.
"The fact that these contracts were made secretly suggests the CPB leadership is trying to hide its political agenda," he said in a statement.
Ernest J. Wilson III, a Democratic member of the corporation's board, called the handling of the lobbyist contracts unprecedented, saying he had only learned of them Thursday.
"If it's the way it was described, it certainly should have been brought before the whole board," Wilson said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
He and other public broadcasting officials said Tomlinson had undermined the corporation's traditional role as a political buffer and diverted attention from the financial pressures on the system.