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Source: Almost $490 Million Unused from DTV Coupon Funding

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration wound up not using almost the exact amount of extra funding provided in the stimulus package for DTV-to-analog converter box coupons--$490 million. That doesn't mean, however, that the agency didn't need the money as an insurance policy after Congress failed to change the accounting rules on the DTV bill establishing the program.

According to an NTIA source who asked not to be identified, the agency has returned to the Treasury $241.6 million left over from the DTV-to-analog coupon program. That money has been divided up by Congress and applied to HR 3326, the just-passed Defense appropriations bill ($128 million), and HR 2847, a jobs bill ($111 million) that is technicially an appropriations bill for Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies (NTIA is part of the Commerce Department).

"The Hill decided to split those funds between the defense appropriations and jobs bills," said the source. The remaining $2.6 million or so was described as "final closeout costs" for the program.

But the total unspent money came to more than double that amount--$489 million--or almost exactly the $490 million Congress appropriated to get the coupon program restarted after it ran out of money, at least on paper, back in January 2008. (That accounting shortfall helped drive the decision to move the DTV transition date from Feb. 17 to June 12.).

That's because another $250 million is left over from the original $1.34 billion funding as well. NTIA was free to return the unused $240 million in coupon funding it received from the stimulus package. But because of the way the original bill allocating the $1.34 billion for the subsidy was written, anything left over from that funding goes into a DTV public safety fund, which is not NTIA's to give back.

While it may seem like that extra $490 million turned out to be unnecessary, it was actually crucial to keeping the program going because the original bill didn't allow NTIA to access funds until coupons expired and the money was freed up. That caused a backlog of millions of coupons early last year as NTIA waited for coupons to expire, a backlog that was cleared up with the extra stimulus funds.

It does suggest, however, that a proposed legislative effort that would have changed the accounting rules on the first bill in order to free up that initial funding would have essentially covered the program.