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House fails measure to cut OETA funding

by Christie Southern, eCapitol News

(eCap) After strong bipartisan opposition, the House failed a measure that would phase out funding to the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority by 2022.

HB2218 by Rep. Tom Newell, R-Seminole, and Sen. Bill Brown, R-Broken Arrow, reduces the amount appropriated to the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority each fiscal year by an amount of funds that is equal to or exceeds the following cumulative percentages of funding: For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016 at least 10 percent of the total amount appropriated to the Authority for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014; For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, at least 10 percent of the total amount appropriated to the Authority for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014; For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, at least 10 percent of the total amount appropriated to the Authority for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014; and for the three fiscal years of reductions, the Legislature will reassess the financial status of the Authority. The bill states the future reduction in appropriations will be based on the amount of funds available to the Authority on January 31, 2018, through the foundation and other sources listed in the bill and if the Legislature determines the Authority has secured other funds: for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019 at least 10 percent of total appropriations for fiscal year ending June 30, 2014 and as other provisions defined. The bill state it is the intent of the Legislature that by June 30, 2022, the Authority will not received appropriations from the Legislature and the bill is re-created to continue until July 1, 2022.

The measure was debated by numerous representatives in opposition with only the bill’s author debating in favor. Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, debated in opposition to the measure but only because he thought the Legislature should not wait to sunset the agency.

“What do we care about what OETA thinks?” Reynolds asked, after many legislators pointed out that OETA Director Daniel Schiedel was not happy about the current language of the bill, despite agreeing to cooperate with Newell on the bill.

“You are going to give these guys an extra 10 years…why in the world would we say this is good government to give this agency we’ve been trying to get rid of 10 years to sunset,” Reynolds asked.

“I don’t want to do away with the agency,” Newell said. “I just don’t think we need to give them direct appropriation.”

Newell said OETA’s funding already comes primarily from private sources.

“Why don’t we get rid of them now? Why should we be subsidizing one channel you probably don’t watch,” Reynolds told Newell. Newell said he understood Reynolds frustration but extending the sunset time allows the agency to build their endowment through other sources rather than cutting them off completely.

Newell continued to remind members that he is not trying to get rid of the agency, but in fact, extending the sunset to allow OETA more time to gather other resources for funding.

Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, pointed out that OETA is one of the primary mediums for emergency notifications and eliminating this signal would be detrimental to the rural citizens of Oklahoma. Newell dismissed her argument by saying commercial stations can release amber alerts as well.

“I can’t believe them ever working with you to phase OETA out,” Rep. David Dank, R-Oklahoma City, said. “I can’t believe them ever working with you to phase OETA out,”

“I can’t believe them ever working with you to phase OETA out,” Newell said, adding that if a lot of people are enjoying the programming, then there will be no problem in the free market for them to get private funding.

Dank and Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, drew out arguments made in previous debates regarding tax credit bills and a lack of funds.

“Don’t you think it’s a little hypocritical in this body to give tax credit to corporations but not fund OETA?” Dank asked. Inman said the bill is giving OETA an ultimatum. Inman pointed out that over the years the legislature has fought to protect OETA in a bipartisan effort.

“After years of fighting to not zero them out, why would we accept a bill to zero them out?” Inman asked.

Only Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, stood in defense of the bill.

“When the government steps out, the private sector steps in,” Osborn explained.

Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, said in debate he found it incredulous that the defunding issue comes from the belief that OETA programming is too liberal and proceeded to call out television shows on commercial networks that promote a liberal agenda and homosexuality.

Dank noted in his debate that the Legislature needs to start respecting senior citizens who rely on OETA programming.

“Let’s quit treating them the way we treat them,” he said. “Let’s quit pretending that everyone can afford cable TV.”

There’s passion among the people for OETA, Dank said.

Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Dacoma, brought up the argument that commercial stations would pick up emergency communications.

“That’s all great and wonderful if you live in Central Oklahoma,” he said. “…OETA is the only one [station] that covers the entire state.” Hickman also brought up the issue of programming; noting that as the Legislature has cut funding to OETA, the network has had to cut local programming and made them rely on national programming, which gives the state less say in the programming choices.

“I appreciate striking title and working with OETA, but what does that mean?” Hickman asked Newell. “It means holding a gun to their heads and giving them only two choices…it’s true they would support this [measure] over being eliminated immediately.”

“We are here because the gun was cocked,” Inman said. “Their very existence has been threatened by a group of legislators who simply do not like OETA.”

Inman argued in his debate that “good common sense” people have voted this down every year.

“We have the opportunity to do this one more time and send this bill back where it belongs…in the garbage can.”

Rep. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, pointed out the rarity of bipartisan support in the Legislature and said it should not fall on the people to raise the money to keep OETA alive.

“People in my district are trying to raise money to eat not raise money to have this program,” Matthews said. “This is a sad statement.”

Reynolds argued in opposition of the measure because “it contradicts the Constitution.”

“I really don’t care about OETA and my constituents don’t care,” he said. “It is not the government’s responsibility to provide a TV signal into anyone’s home in Oklahoma.”

Rep. Earl Sears, in an effort to avoid redundancy, gave his debate in a different approach. Sears gave some background on the agency and praised their efforts to deliver the history of the state of Oklahoma for the last 60 years.

“It’s a quality of life, it’s our history, OETA is a quality of life that affects every one of our constituents,” Sears, R-Bartlesville, said. “Members, please do not make this a sad day, the bottom line of it is we are maintaining a quality of life in this state.”

“A yes vote on this bill is the death toll for OETA,” Rep. Harold Wright, Weatherford, added. Wright pointed out that 40 percent of their funding comes from the legislature. “Cutting the funding, regardless of everything that’s been said today…it will kill OETA.”

Wright said though OETA may survive, it will not be something the state will like. Newell said in closing debate that it is not the job of the government to subsidize good entertainment and asked legislators to vote for the bill.

The bill failed by a vote of 57 to 41. Newell served notice to reconsider the vote on the bill later in the day. Because Thursday was the deadline for hearing bills in their chamber of origin, Newell had until the end of the day to exercise the notice. He did not do so.