No agreement on how CT-N will survive budget cut

The operators of CT-N, the non-profit television network that’s provided a window on Connecticut state government for nearly two decades, failed in a meeting with legislative officials Friday to agree on a way for the network to survive a 50-percent budget cut.

The bipartisan budget passed Thursday cuts CT-N’s operating budget to $1.2 million, giving the Office of Legislative Management just three working days to establish a new scope of services before its contract with CT-N expires at midnight Tuesday.

“I hope it doesn’t go dark. We want it to go on,” said James Tracy, the executive director of legislative management. “It will look different. I’m not sure how.”

The 50-percent cut comes after the Connecticut Public Affairs Network, the private non-profit that operates CT-N under a contract with the General Assembly, agreed months ago to cut its budget by $400,000 from $2.8 million to $2.4 million.

To operate at $2.4 million, CT-N ended a weekly public affairs show and other programming, such as an interview show Diane Smith, a former WTNH anchor, hosted on the opening day of the legislative session. It’s unclear what will remain of CT-N by cutting the $2.4 million in half.

“It just doesn’t work at $1.2 million,” said Paul Giguere, the chief executive officer of the network.

Republicans made the same cut in a budget the legislature unexpectedly passed last month with the support of a handful of Democrats and was quickly vetoed by the governor. In the bipartisan version adopted Thursday, the Democratic leaders acquiesced to the GOP number for CT-N, apparently with little discussion of its ramifications.

“No one wants to get rid of CT-N,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.

But the $1.2 million operating budget was based on no scope of services, leaving the Office of Legislative Management to scramble Friday to determine what that would buy or who would operate CT-N if the Connecticut Public Affairs Network deemed it insufficient to meet its costs, which include salaries and rent in a commercial building near the Capitol.

“We need to figure out how to make it work,” Tracy said Friday after the meeting. “It’s everybody in a room talking about what can we do for that amount of money. Nobody knows.”

That includes the legislators who negotiated the bipartisan budget.

“We’ll have to have a conversation and try to figure it out,” Ritter said. “I’m sure the right meeting will happen, and we’ll make adjustments as necessary.”

The cut comes after months of tense negotiations over the manner in which CT-N would operate.

In a request for proposals in the spring, the legislature indicated a desire to assert greater control by keeping the network tightly focused on the legislature’s debates, hearings and press conferences.

Connecticut Public Affairs Network, the only operator of CT-N since it was launched in 1999, was the only organization to respond to the RFP, but the non-profit and Legislative Management failed to settle on terms before its latest contract expired on Sept. 30. The contract was extended until Oct. 31.

The legislature’s contracting rules barred officials at Legislative Management or the Connecticut Public Affairs Network to talk about the status of the negotiations or the changes the new RFP would force on CT-N.

“This is a service that is supposed to be about providing transparency,” said William A. Bevacqua, the vice president of the public affairs network. “It’s been the least transparent thing that’s gone on.”

CT-N’s coverage of events outside the Capitol long have rankled some legislators and legislative staffers, who take a proprietary view of the network since its funding is part of the legislature’s budget. The funding comes from a gross receipts tax on cable television systems, much of which went into a segregated fund for CT-N.

Until passage of the budget Thursday, $3.2 million was slated to go into  the CT-N fund this fiscal year. The new budget removes $1.6 million  and places it in the General Fund, as well as halving the operating budget.

The RFP specified that the network would be barred from covering the other branches of government without legislative approval, potentially closing a window on selected Supreme Court arguments and administrative proceedings.

A provision that now gives “full editorial discretion regarding day-to-day programming” to the Connecticut Public Affairs Network was absent from the RFP, raising concerns the network might become a public-relations arm of the General Assembly.

Pat Sheehan, the chairman of the network’s board of directors, said the group had no interest in operating CT-N as an extension of the legislature’s public-relations operations, nor could it, given its status as a tax-exempt, non-profit entity.

Tracy said Legislative Management’s goal is keep CT-N alive and expects further talks with the Connecticut Public Affairs Network. None are scheduled.

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