Public Broadcasters Pan Bush Budget

President Bush's $2.2 trillion budget for Fiscal Year 2004 would seriously compromise public broadcasters' ability to fulfill its legal obligations, including their transition to digital, the broadcasters' top lobby group said this week.

Among other provisions, the White House proposal would "suspend" the Commerce Department's Public Television Facilities Program, which has funded public broadcasting infrastructure since 1962. Instead, the budget would authorize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to spend up to $100 million of its general appropriation for the infrastructure.

"The vast majority of CPB funds go directly to more than 1,000 local public radio and television stations," the Association of Public Television Stations said. "These cuts would hit them at an already difficult time, when they are eliminating programming and cutting other services due to the weakened economy and deep cuts in state funding. Beyond that, they are facing a possible rescssion in FY 2003 funds, that is, funds that have already been committed or provided to stations this year."

It could be months before a final FY 2004 budget is passed by both houses of Congress and returned to the president for his signature. The nation still has no budget for FY 2003, which began Oct. 1; the government has been operating since then under resolutions that spend federal money in accordance with the FY 2002 budget.

"We in public broadcasting understand that the combination of a war on terrorism and a weakened economy will have a serious impact on federal appropriations, including our own," APTS said. "Nonetheless, the President's budget would, if enacted, seriously compromise our ability to deliver the services we are required by law to provide to the American people."

Public broadcasters are required to begin digital transmission by May 1, a conversion that also requires replacement of public television's satellite distribution system.

In addition, according to APTS, the budget proposal makes no provision for advance funding, ending a 29 year tradition that has allowed public broadcasters leverage for raising nonfederal funding and given adequate lead time to plan, design, create and support the programs and services.

"The bottom line is that public broadcasters are able to set priorities and live within strict budget parameters, but without additional funding, we cannot build an entirely new, federally mandated technological infrastructure while also delivering the public services required of us by the Public Broadcasting Act," APTS said.