Standing in the State Capitol rotunda on Wednesday morning, longtime Minnesota Public Radio president Bill Kling looked out at his small army of citizen lobbyists and told them to wave their signs, bend the ears of legislators and "give them hell."
So began MPR's "Public Radio Day" at the Capitol, where the state's public radio network is in the unique position of aggressively covering the Legislature as a news organization and at the same time asking legislators for $3.3 million in state Legacy money to continue some of its newest programming. With a vague nod toward last month's Republican-led vote in Congress to significantly cut federal funding for National Public Radio, MPR officials have hinted that public radio in Minnesota could face the same fate from the state's new GOP Republican legislative House and Senate majorities.
For now there are few outward signs that MPR is being targeted. Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, who spoke at Wednesday's rally, said there has been some grumbling over Kling's $376,904 annual salary. Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, one of the new conservatives who helped propel Republicans to their first Senate majority in more than a generation, expressed general support for MPR but cautioned the radio network not to cast itself as being targeted by conservatives who may see it as a liberal-leaning media outlet.
"I hope it doesn't become political [because] if it becomes political, I don't think they win," said Gazelka, who sits on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which is now considering MPR's request.
But Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, was more blunt. "If they weren't [biased in favor of liberals], why is there a broad-based perception nationwide that they are? Where does that come from? It's certainly not a vast right-wing conspiracy," he said.
As this year's proposal for disbursing Legacy funding moves through the Legislature -- and is one of the few sources of new money in a state facing a $5.1 billion deficit -- the jockeying for the money can be intense. Since the Legacy Amendment was being passed by voters in 2008, the Legacy Amendment has provided more than $200 million annually in sales tax money for outdoors, clean water, parks and trails and cultural heritage projects.
A House proposal, which was approved by a key legislative panel on Wednesday, would give $100 million to arts and cultural heritage groups alone during the next two years, including $1 million to the Science Museum of Minnesota, $1.4 million to the Minnesota Zoo and $2 million to MPR.
"It just doesn't work for everyone to get what they've requested," said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, who chairs the House Legacy Funding Division panel.
MPR officials have reminded public radio listeners that Urdahl's panel not is not only not recommending the $3.3 million the radio network is requesting over the next two years, but that the $2 million in the bill would be a reduction from the $2.65 million that MRP is getting now. MPR's website, in urging listeners to contact legislators, told them that the House was proposing "significant cuts" to its funding."
At Wednesday's rally, a supporter held up a sign that read, "I'm the Public in Public Radio"
Still, MPR officials acknowledged that the $1.65 million they are seeking annually represents only 4 percent of MPR's total statewide services budget. The network says it got 91 percent of its fiscal 2010 budget from nongovernment sources.
At a hearing late Tuesday, Tim Roesler, MPR's senior vice president and general manager, took aim directly at how some legislators may view MPR. "I'd like to first address the possible notion that MPR is a big organization that may not need the money," he told a Senate panel. "We should not cut back the one entity that's really maximizing every dollar."
As she briefed a group of volunteers who were about to meet on Wednesday with legislators, MPR lobbyist Lisa Radzak told them that dozens of employees were now working on programming funded by Legacy money. There will be layoffs, she said, "if we receive a significant reduction," she said.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673