PHOENIX — The head of the House Appropriations Committee wants to pull all state funds from Arizona PBS over what he said is the station’s mishandling of the gubernatorial debate.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, acknowledged that KAET-TV has the right to air what it wants. That includes what station officials say is its obligation to provide equal time to Democrat Katie Hobbs after Republican Kari Lake was going to get 30 minutes of airtime.
But Kavanagh told Capitol Media Services on Thursday that the station, which is part of the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, has had an ongoing relationship with the Citizens Clean Elections Commission that arranges these debates.
“The rules for years were if a candidate refuses to debate, they don’t get time,’’ he said.
That was the case here, with the commission agreeing to provide a 30-minute interview for Lake with host Ted Simons after Hobbs refused to share the stage.
On Wednesday, though, the station decided on its own it would provide the same opportunity for Hobbs on its nightly Horizon show next week despite the fact the commission had rejected her request for separate interviews. Lake’s interview, originally scheduled for Wednesday, would immediately follow.
“It smacks of partisan politics,’’ Kavanagh said of the decision of Arizona PBS to allow Hobbs an opportunity despite her spurning commission rules.
“They’re reneging on a commitment they made to Clean Elections to go by the rules that promote Clean Elections debates,’’ Kavanagh said. “And that’s why it’s a problem.’’
He also said giving Hobbs an interview even after she refused to debate will encourage future candidates to do the same, without fear of forfeiting airtime on the Phoenix PBS affiliate.
Kavanagh was not the only Republican lashing out at the station for its decision.
“It just seems wrong,’’ Gov. Doug Ducey told KTAR talk show host Mike Broomhead on Thursday. “And I think PBS needs to fix it.’’
What that means, the governor said, is the station going back to its original arrangement with Clean Elections. That means either Hobbs shows up for an actual debate “or Kari Lake can have that time.’’
“They made a mistake here,’’ Ducey said of Arizona PBS. “They should just rip the Band-Aid off and fix it.’’
Ducey press aide C.J. Karamargin said his boss would not comment on Kavanagh’s bid to defund the station.
The university, for its part, continues to defend its decision.
ASU Vice President Jay Thorne said it was the “custom and responsibility of Horizon as a news agency’’ to provide time to all candidates. He said that decision to offer both of them time on the news show — separate and apart from any commission-sponsored event — did not violate any agreement Arizona PBS had with the commission.
“The failure of the candidates to come to an agreement on a debate format rendered it dead,’’ Thorne said. “And, lacking that forum, Arizona PBS and Horizon are advancing as they would under any other circumstance in providing time for each candidate.’’
That’s not exactly true.
In 2018, when Ducey refused to debate Secretary of State Ken Bennett ahead of the Republican gubernatorial primary, the station gave Bennett airtime on his own. This year former Nogales Mayor Marco Lopez, seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, got a half-hour interview with Simons after Hobbs refused to debate him.
Similar arrangements have been made in other races lower on the ticket.
“I’ve given you the comment I’m going to give you on that,’’ Thorne responded.
Whether there will be back-to-back appearances as proposed Tuesday remains to be seen.
Lake said Wednesday, after Arizona PBS announced its decision to give time to Hobbs, that she would appear on the air at the station only if allowed to actually debate her, as was the original arrangement.
“I will agree to appear with Katie Hobbs next Tuesday, on the stage, together,’’ Lake said.”And if she doesn’t appear with me, they should kick her out and say she can’t be on the airwaves of PBS.”
On Thursday, Lake press aide Ross Trumble said he won’t speculate on what the GOP nominee would do until the commission makes further comments.
But Tom Collins, the commission’s executive director, said the only thing being considered now is whether another station would give Lake time on her own, as was the arrangement with Arizona PBS after Hobbs backed out of the debate.
Eliminating state funding would have an effect.
The most recent figures show that just $488,652 of the station’s $20.2 million annual budget comes directly from ASU, with the largest share, about $7.3 million, in subscription and membership income. But the university provides nearly $2.1 million in “indirect administrative support,’’ which likely includes space and utilities in the Cronkite School in downtown Phoenix.