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The New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

State budget includes $1 million for NJ PBS

Public television network hired lobbyist in pursuit of state funding

By David Wildstein, March 11 2021 6:21 am

Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed state budget includes $1 million for New Jersey’s public television network, which hired a powerful Trenton lobbyist to help them obtain funding.

The request to subsidize NJ PBS, known as NJTV until a rebranding last month, came after a the network hired the Kaufman Zita Group in April 2020 to help them convince the Murphy administration to restore subsides for public television.

Scott Kobler, the chairman of the NJ PBS Board of Trustees, said that New Jersey is the only state that provides no financial support for public television.

He said the requested appropriation will help NJ PBS purchase new equipment and increase their ability to provide more programming for New Jerseyans.

But the request for a subsidy could be viewed as bad optics for state politicians, since their news operation covers Murphy and the legislature – and their re-election campaigns in an election year.

Kobler pushed back on any appearance of conflicts.

“It has nothing to do with news and editorial,” said Kobler. “It has to do with nuts and bolts equipment and keep us as reliable as we can be.”

In 2011, then-Gov. Chris Christie closed down the state-run New Jersey Network (NJN) and transfer their operations to WNET Channel 13 in New York.  NJN had received $4 million in the 2010 budget and offered about 120 employees – many of them members of the Communications Workers of America – state health care and pension benefits.

Christie claimed that the state could no longer afford the cost of running a public television station.

As part of the deal, the state sold its public radio licenses to New York Public Radio and WHYY in Philadelphia for about $4.3 million.

The current proposal could put the state back in the public television business, if the legislature approves it.

“We need to go back and look at the separation agreement,” said Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo.

In 2010, the legislature passed a law that gave NJN one year to find independent management.

“What was the agreement on future subsidies?” Sarlo asked.  “We need to ensure that a subsidy is appropriate.  Is it appropriate to give them money and not subsidies for any other media outlets?”

The chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, Eliana Pintor Marin, said she has not yet decided if she will back the proposal.

“Everything is under review,” Pintor-Marin said.

NJ PBS, which operates as Public Media NJ, a non-profit subsidiary of WNET, runs at a $358,00 deficit for fiscal year 2020, records show.

Although revenues increased slightly in the last fiscal year – from $9.79 million in 2019 to $9.86 million — the network’s financial reserves are not enough to finance any programming expansion.

The network spent $94,000 on lobbying expenses in 2020, according to reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

NJ PBS hired Trish Zita to help them win support for the $1 million appropriation in the FY 2022 budget, paying her $46,000 in 2020.

After bringing on Zita, records show that NJ PBS ended their lobbying contract with Princeton Public Affairs Group, the firm headed by two Republicans who are playing a major role in the campaign of Murphy’s likely GOP opponent, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.

The funding was first proposed last year, but withdrawn due to the fiscal crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said that a state without a local network television — New Jersey is largely divided between the New York and Philadelphia media markets – needs to figure out a way to fill the void.

“This could be a Trenton insider’s view, I will readily admit, but the dearth of New Jersey news is such a longstanding and well-understood truth in our state that it’s a matter not just of state pride but also critical accountability for us to have in-state television coverage,” Rasmussen said.

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