Georgia Senate budget targets public media, cyber center

FILE - Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery speaks in the Senate chamber at the Georgia state Capitol, March 31, 2021, in Atlanta. Tillery's committee passed a bill that cuts higher education funding as part of a larger dispute. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Beyond cutting overall university and college spending, a Georgia Senate budget proposal also targets Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in Augusta.

The budget passed the Senate on Thursday on a 51-1 vote has mainly drawn attention for a $105 million proposed cut to teaching and health insurance funds for the state’s 26 public universities and colleges.

But the spending plan also proposes a $5.1 million cut to Augusta University’s Cyber Center, out of $5.5 million in direct state funds. There’s also a $3.7 million cut to the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission, the state agency that oversees GPB. That’s out of $14.2 million in state funds.

The House did not seek similar cuts in its budget proposal. Representatives and senators must work out their differences on the budget by Wednesday, when Georgia’s 2023 legislative session is scheduled to end.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican, was questioned Thursday about the cuts to Georgia Public Broadcasting, which operates nine public television stations and eighteen radio stations across the state. Its programming including television’s Sesame Street, Curious George and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, as well as National Public Radio, public affairs programming and high school football games.

“The importance of public education via TV and radio can’t be overstated,” said Sen. Josh McLaurin, an Atlanta Democrat.

Tillery responded that other broadcasters have complained about the state funding GPB.

“Let’s be honest, what they’re really saying is ‘Why are you funding my competition?'” Tillery said. “But I think that’s actually a very valid point. Why are we picking winners and losers? I don’t think that’s the space we want to be in.”

Tillery referenced a proposed earlier budget cut of nearly $500,000 in early 2021 that was not enacted. Emails obtained through a public records request by blogger Brian Bannon showed that, at the time, GPB President and CEO Teya Ryan believed the cut was intended as retribution for “liberal” news coverage. Ryan noted then that state funding doesn’t pay for TV and radio programming. Instead, it pays for GPB’s transmission towers and its educational outreach, including extensive educational content available to teachers beyond its broadcast television programming.

Georgia Public Broadcasting declined to comment Friday.

WABE, which operates an NPR affiliate and public television station in Atlanta that don’t get state funding, said it knew nothing of any such complaints. The Georgia Association of Broadcasters, which represents television and radio stations in Georgia including GPB, did not respond to a request for comment.

“We don’t see GPB as competition,” WABE Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Sherri Daye Scott wrote in an email. “In our view, the more independent, unbiased news organizations and content hubs serving the Greater Atlanta region, the better.”

Tillery denied partisan ill feeling, saying Thursday “there’s not a hatred of GPB in this building” and noting the state this year has contributed to GPB capital improvements. He said senators “would love” for GPB to have a “continued focus on educational programming.”

As for the Cyber Center, Tillery told committee members Tuesday that center leaders promised it would become self sufficient when Gov. Nathan Deal in 2017 spent $50 million to build the two-building complex overlooking the Savannah River in downtown Augusta. The Cyber Center aims to make Augusta a center of computer security research and development, along with the Army Cyber Command at Fort Gordon.

The idea was that the center would rent office space to partner companies.

Tillery said the center “made a commitment to us early on that after several years they would be able to support themselves on rents and now we’re going to move them to that part of their budget.”

Augusta University, the Cyber Center and the University System of Georgia did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Cal Wray, president of the Augusta Economic Development Authority, said he didn’t know how where the center is on the path to self sufficiency, but said he feared it may have been delayed by the pandemic.

“The Cyber Center has been a great asset for downtown Augusta and if that money is necessary for their operation, we will view that as a negative for downtown Augusta,” Wray said.