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Noncom Trust May Have Traction

PBS President Pat Mitchell and other public broadcasting advocates have been pushing legislation to create a huge—-as much as $20 billion-—trust fund to provide a pool of cash for noncom stations, as well as libraries and universities.

Interest from the fund would be used to help stations develop new educational programming and distance learning technology, among other things.

The trust would be generated from a portion of the revenues raised by the federal government’s auction of reclaimed TV channels expected in 2008 and other spectrum sales planned in the future. The sponsor of legislation, dubbed the Digital Opportunities Investment Trust, is Rep. Ed Markey.

The Massachusetts Democrat has fought for years to build a pool of money that public broadcasting could tap free of the political pressures from Congress. Markey’s legislation calls for 30% of the proceeds from auctions to be earmarked for the fund.

The likelihood Congress will earmark so much at a time of growing deficits and escalating costs of war would appear slim. But Colin Crowell, an aide to Markey, says his boss has, for the first time, lined up bipartisan sponsors for the bill.

The reasons behind public broadcasters’ drive for an independent source of revenue were driven home last week when a House subcommittee cut 2006 funding for noncommercial broadcasting by $236 million from last year. Much of the money is expected to be restored by the Senate later but the budget battled and ongoing political food fight over the GOP’s alleged attempt to stamp out liberal programming on PBS has leaves the government’s willingness to support public broadcasting in the future open to doubt.

Besides public broadcasters, Markey’s most important outside ally is Digital Promise, a coalition of technology executives, university officials and a smattering of famous individuals like retired Sen. Bob Kerry and Star Wars impresario George Lucas. Digital Promise has committed itself to developing grassroots and corporate support for the legislation.