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State's public TV stations seek $15 million for equipment, infrastructure upgrades

Patty Mester, general manager of WDSE•WRPT, calls the Duluth-Superior public television station’s engineer “MacGyver,” after the 1980s TV character who could seemingly create something out of nothing to fix any problem.

“I get to lay awake at night wondering if our aging infrastructure is going to bring quality programs to rural areas where we are, in some cases, the only provider of educational programming,” she said. Mester also works with other public television station managers to buy and trade equipment because replacement parts are no longer available in many cases.

Minnesota’s public television stations provide a plethora of programming for all ages, but stations throughout the state are facing a perplexing problem that could potentially produce no picture.

To help, Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown) sponsors HF353 that, as amended, would appropriate $15 million in Fiscal Year 2020 to assist six entities with equipment purchases.

“This is nothing new, it’s nothing sexy … it’s just very, very important to communication in rural Minnesota and throughout all of our stations,” she said. ”Public television is the backbone of public safety in some areas of our state.”

Initially held over Wednesday by the House State Government Finance Division for possible omnibus bill inclusion, it is to be reconsidered Thursday, per Murphy’s later request, and referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, with a recommended re-referral to the House Capital Investment Division.

Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) sponsors SF440, the companion that awaits action by the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee.

Under the bill, Twin Cities PBS would receive two-sevenths of the funding, with one-seventh each to KSMQ in Austin, Pioneer Public Television in Granite Falls, Lakeland PBS in Bemidji, Prairie Public in Fargo-Moorhead and WDSE•WRPT. Equipment purchased must have a useful life of between seven and 40 years.

Representing Friends of Minnesota Public Television, Bill Strusinski said there is $104 million worth of public television equipment and infrastructure to be maintained across the state with an immediate need of $22 million. He said this size request is only sought every 15-20 years.

Since 1984, the state has provided $36.67 million in public television equipment grants, including $7.8 million in 2002 and $6.65 million in 2007. Since then, the annual award has not topped $250,000, except for $1.95 million in the 2017 capital investment law to help construct a new facility for Pioneer Public Television in Granite Falls.

A federal grant program that provided equipment grants ended almost 10 years ago, Strusinski said, while adding that funding from other places is continually being sought.

“We’ll leverage this money from private sources, philanthropic sources and foundations. That’s how we will achieve our money. But we need the state to be into the game so we know exactly how much additional revenue we need to raise.”

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