Oklahoma's public television system won final legislative approval Thursday to continue to exist for the next two years.
Supporters of House Bill 2236 said the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority is the only source of local programming that nearly all Oklahomans can receive for free and is a terrific learning aid for children.
Opponents questioned whether it's time for the state to stop subsidizing the TV system, saying corporations and individuals would increase their giving once state appropriations stopped.
“In this election year our constituents would rather support and send the money to veterans instead of Big Bird,” said Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow.
Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, said OETA's daylong programming of “Sesame Street” and other children's educational programs are helping youngsters learn their numbers and colors by the time they enter school.
“I never thought that at 59 years old serving in the state Legislature I'd be up here debating in favor of Big Bird, but I've heard a lot of aspersions against Big Bird ... and kind of disrespected Big Bird,” he said. “And you know that's almost un-American.
“Big Bird has served a purpose over the years,” Cox said. “There are a lot of kids in this state that the reason they knew how to count when they went to kindergarten or pre-K ... was because they learned those things and they learned their colors from watching Big Bird.”
After more than an hour of debate, the House of Representatives voted 53-28 to pass HB 2236. It required 51 votes to pass.
All 28 no votes were by Republicans, several of whom mentioned a no vote would help their conservative rating that is compiled by different groups.
“Although this may be a conservative index vote,” said Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, “all the conservatives in the Panhandle are for OETA for this reason: it's the only news we get from Oklahoma City, it's the only political news we get from Oklahoma City and many times it's the only news station that many of my constituents get from Oklahoma City. It serves a great purpose in the Panhandle area.”
Rep. David Dank urged his fellow Republicans not to worry about so-called conservative ratings.
“I stand here as a conservative member of this body and just because some group says I am not does not make it so,” said Dank, R-Oklahoma City. “Just because I don't think it's a good idea for members of this body to be able to walk in here with a pistol strapped to their waists doesn't make me a liberal.”
HB 2236 now goes to the governor for her consideration.
Original bill approved station through 2016
The vote was much closer than in March, when the House passed 77-16 the original version of the bill, which called for extending OETA to 2016. The Senate, after a committee came close to killing the measure, amended the bill to change its sunset date from 2016 to 2014.
OETA this fiscal year received $3.8 million in state funding, or about 40 percent of its budget.
Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, said the state appropriation amounted to the price of a candy bar per taxpayer.
Rep. Leslie Osborn, who withdrew a bill earlier this year that would have gradually stopped the state from funding OETA over the next five years, said 17 other states don't fund their public television station systems and they still are operating.
“We could spend that funding on things like more foster care to save children that are dying in the foster care system,” said Osborn, R-Mustang. “When the public steps out, private steps in.
“We do not have the right to procure money from citizens against their will for things that are not core services of government,” she said. “This has nothing to do with what a good service they provide.”
Had HB 2236 failed, OETA programming likely would have stopped this summer and all operations would have been ended within a year, said Rep. George Faught, R-
“They would have one year to dissolve the board,” he said. “That's how the sunset rules work.”
“We could finish off OETA right now,” said Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City.
Tax credits discussed
Dank criticized members for wanting to eliminate OETA and its $3.8 million funding. Legislators will appropriate about $6.6 billion for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Several members who complained about OETA's appropriation failed to support efforts to eliminate questionable corporate tax credits, which are costing the state hundreds of millions a year, he said.
“This is mind-
“We've got so much waste in this state that it's a sin against the taxpayers that we don't take a look at it, but you want to get rid ... of the only outlet that we have that provides the type of educational programs that serve a purpose for all of these different age groups in the state of Oklahoma.”
Rep. David Derby, R-Owasso, said more people are gaining access to the Internet and cable and satellite television systems and don't need OETA as much as earlier.
But Dank disagreed, saying many rural residents don't have access to cable or satellite systems, and others, especially those on fixed incomes, may have trouble paying for those services.
“There are areas in the state of Oklahoma in very secluded areas and rural areas that OETA is the only station that they can get that provides statewide news and public service programs for those areas,” Dank said. “A large number of our seniors depend on OETA for such program as Lawrence Welk and ‘Masterpiece Theatre' ... rather than those that are full of sex and crime and violence that they have on the regular network stations.”
John McCarroll, OETA's executive director, said after the vote he was relieved the House approved HB 2236 and is optimistic lawmakers will fund the system appropriately.
He said the agency has asked for an increase in funding in order to bring back its nightly newscasts, which ended two years ago because of budget cuts.
“We would like to get that back,” McCarroll said. “We feel like we're going to be OK with our budget, but we know it's not going to be easy. It's going to be the same kind of discussion that we had down here on the floor.”