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OETA seeks funding hike despite growing opposition

Sean Murphy, Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The new director of Oklahoma's public television network asked the Legislature on Monday for a more than 50 percent boost in state funding for the upcoming fiscal year, even as some lawmakers are calling to entirely eliminate state funding for the agency.

The Oklahoma Educational Television Authority's new executive director, Dan Schiedel, discussed his agency's funding needs before a joint House and Senate budget panel. The agency, which received about $3.8 million in state funding during the last two fiscal years, wants a $2 million increase to pay for statewide satellite distribution, more state legislative coverage and increasing employee benefits, among other things.

Schiedel touted the many educational programs aired on OETA, including programs like Sesame Street, as well as popular shows like Downton Abbey and Antiques Roadshow.

"We are so many different things to so many different people in the state of Oklahoma," Schiedel said. "Children love OETA ... and they are impacted tremendously. These children have a safe haven when they tune in and watch OETA."

But OETA also is facing opposition from a growing number of conservatives in the Legislature who argue the network is not a core function of state government. The agency already has seen its state-appropriated budget slashed from $5.2 million in fiscal year 2009 to $4.4 million in 2010 and $4.2 million in 2011.

The agency nearly faced extinction last year when members of the Republican-controlled House narrowly approved a bill that allowed OETA to continue to exist as a state agency until 2014.

This year, Rep. Tom Newell has introduced a bill to reduce state appropriations to the agency by 10 percent for the next two years, increasing to a 20 percent reduction after that until all state funding is completely eliminated.

"It's a matter of priorities," said Newell, R-Seminole. "Our goal is not to do away with the authority. It's simply to do away with the direct appropriations."

State appropriations account for about 36 percent of OETA's budget. Most of the agency's funding comes from foundation grants, in-kind contributions and viewer donations. OETA also has an endowment that contains about $26 million, but Schiedel said that would need to grow to about $100 million to be able to replace state funding.

House Speaker T.W. Shannon said there are several options for funding OETA in Oklahoma, but he noted several states do not subsidize public television.

"This is a matter the Legislature will have to decide collectively," Shannon, R-Lawton, said in a statement. "Public television provides an important function, and all funding for state government must be examined as a whole, not in a vacuum."

The chairman of the Senate budget committee that oversees OETA funding, Sen. James Halligan, said he supports giving the agency time to develop other sources of funding before deeply slashing their budget.

"I think that the sentiment that I hear expressed to me is that people want to reduce the funding and put them on a very shallow glide-path, such that they have a sufficient number of years to raise other funds," said Halligan, R-Stillwater. "We don't want OETA to no longer function in Oklahoma, but what we want to do with all the various entities that we fund in the state, we want to make sure we aren't expending any more state dollars than we have to, to provide this function."


Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy