If you haven’t been paying attention, West Virginia is in bad shape.
A bottoming out of the coal market has lead to massive budget deficits for the state government, this time to the tune of $500 million next year.
Despite other places where he could raise revenue, Gov. Jim Justice’s (D) budget proposal, released Wednesday, would gut West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
And that’s very bad news for all West Virginians.
First the numbers: The Governor’s budget would eliminate $4.6 million from the budget of the Educational Broadcasting Authority, the agency that oversees West Virginia Public Broadcasting. That’s the largest single cut to any state agency according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting says a cut would “threaten the very existence of our state’s PBS and NPR stations.” According to them, about half their budget comes from the state. “This state cut would translate into layoffs of up to 75 percent of our staff, which would endanger our ability to operate.”
Adding insult to injury, WV Public Broadcasting says, “the Justice Administration did not consult anyone at West Virginia Public Broadcasting for advice.”
Public broadcasting operates a 27-tower network that covers the entire state. That network delivers West Virginia educational shows, national and state journalism, and quality programing like the long-running Mountain Stage to the citizens of West Virginia and surrounding states.
But here’s why it’s really, really bad:
If West Virginia loses its public broadcaster, West Virginia will lose the only broadcaster in the state that’s driven entirely by public service. The commercial radio and television stations of the state do some great work reporting the news, but their mission is to make money, not serve the public. West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s sole mission is to serve the people of West Virginia.
Furthermore, with the exception of Dave Raese’s West Virginia Radio Corporation, the state’s biggest broadcasters will not be controlled by West Virginians. For instance:
- All three of Huntington and Charleston’s television stations are owned by conglomerates with little or no ties to our home state. Channel 3 (WSAZ) is owned by Atlanta-based Gray Television, Channel 8 (WCHS) owned by the Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcasting Group (the largest owner of TV stations in America) and Channel 13 (WOWK) was recently sold by a West Virginian to the Texas-based Nexstar Media Group.
- Clarksburg’s Channel 12 (WBOY) was part of that same sale to Nexstar. And Channel 5 (WDTV), probably the last West Virginia owned commercial TV station in the state, is being sold to Gray Television.
- And the Eastern Panhandle has no television stations and is served by Washington, D.C. stations and the Nexstar-owned WHAG in Hagerstown, Maryland.
That’s not to say that the fine people at these corporate-owned TV stations don’t do some great work.
But would they produce a six-and-an-half hour long documentary about our state? West Virginia Public Broadcasting did.
Would their Atlanta-based corporate overlords allow WSAZ to broadcast and stream online gavel-to-gavel coverage of the state legislature? West Virginia Public Broadcasting does.
And would the geniuses in Texas allow WDTV to partner with West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media to develop a groundbreaking digital project, devoted to covering life in Appalachia in the first 100 days of President Trump’s administration? West Virginia Public Broadcasting did.
Meanwhile, there are better, smarter ways to fill the gap.
As the Governor rightly has pointed out, West Virginia cannot overcome a $500 million deficit simply by cutting. His office says that slashing the state budget to make up the difference would cost the state 3,000 jobs.
But what was missing in the Governor’s plan were two easy ways to raise revenue:
- As WeHeart West Virginia reported Tuesday, relaxing and modernizing the state’s marijuana laws could produce $45 million to $194 million in revenue for the state according to one report. Twenty nine states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, 13 states have decriminalized certain marijuana possession offenses and eight state plus the District of Columbia have legalized it.
- And there’s been little talk (at least reported in West Virginia media) of further raising the cigarette tax. Last summer to avoid a shutdown, Gov. Early Ray Tomblin (D) passed a 60 cent increase that was projected to raise $98 million dollars. Instead, Gov. Justice has proposed raising tolls on highways, adding new tolls, and increasing the tax on gasoline.
Bottom line: We will lose a part of ourselves if we lose West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Full and fair disclosure: This is personal for me. Growing up, my father worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. I grew up WNPB’s control room. I volunteered for pledge drives. I witnessed first hand the great work talented filmmakers like Jacob Young (who found and filmed the enduring Jesco White) and John Nakashima, who’s been creating films for and about West Virginians at West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 1977.
There’s was an old PBS campaign that asked the question, “If we don’t do it who will?”
And if we lose West Public Broadcasting, the last public-service driven broadcaster in the state, we will lose a vital part of our state. We will lose great journalists. We will lose great filmmakers. We will lose a piece of ourselves.