Can Idaho Public Television survive without the general fund tax dollars of the state of Idaho?

Sure it can, given enough lead time to seek other sources of revenue. Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter isn't the first elected official to see dollar signs in getting rid of Big Bird. Nationwide, dozens of other state public broadcasting systems - thrown upon the magic of the marketplace - have thrived.

Question is, should the public drop out of public broadcasting in Idaho?

It's a question that the governor should find familiar because he was a member of the Legislature the last time it was being hotly debated.

IPTV was one of the enthusiasms of members - most of them Republicans - of the "greatest generation" Legislatures of the late 1960s and early 1970s and of perhaps the strongest State Board of Education with which Idaho has ever been blessed. Former Gov. Cecil Andrus, a Democrat, was also an early supporter.

Back then, public broadcasting was a transformational phenomenon. Its children's programming enjoyed massive popular - and political - support. Simply put, public education in Idaho wouldn't have developed as it did without "Sesame Street," "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and the like.

Not that conservatives haven't taken potshots at IPTV over the years. Republican Rusty Barlow, a lawmaker from Pocatello in the 1980s, preached that Idaho shouldn't have public television any more than it should have public newspapers.

His conservative colleagues disagreed. For at least the past quarter century, public broadcasting in Idaho has been mostly about public education, although its program offerings are as varied as any commercial TV station. IPTV's longtime general manager, Peter Morrill, moves as comfortably in conservative Republican circles as he does among liberal PBS lovers.

So IPTV's future without the Idaho taxpayers would almost certainly be successful. But would Idaho taxpayers do as well without IPTV?

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If the State Board of Education had to cut public broadcasting loose tomorrow and replace the technology, the operational experience and the infrastructure, it would cost the taxpayers millions of dollars.

Besides, there are few more respected institutions in Idaho than IPTV. It's beloved by every Idaho parent with a 4-year-old - even if those 4-year-olds have long since grown up.

Last year, during the debate over funding higher education, Boise State University Bob Kustra and members of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee talked informally about whether BSU might sometime in the future be better off without a direct general fund subsidy from the state - relying instead of grants and private-sector research support.

The consensus: BSU would do just fine.

It's the same argument we're about to have about public television in Idaho.


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