SCETV CEO Padgett.jpg (copy)

President and CEO of South Carolina ETV Anthony Padgett welcomes the audience to the Democratic gubernatorial primary debate at the University of South Carolina on June 4, 2018, in Columbia. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

COLUMBIA — Nearly half of the state commission that oversees South Carolina's public television and radio stations quit in protest this week, complaining that the private nonprofit that collects millions during pledge drives rebuffed suggestions to give ETV more control over the money.

The impasse came after a state legislative panel asked the commission and the S.C. ETV Endowment to reach an understanding about what exactly can be funded through the endowment, as money from the General Assembly has fallen sharply over the past decade.

The Endowment was sitting on more than $24 million as of a year ago, according to its financial statements. It gave about $6 million to the ETV commission in fiscal year 2018 and has paid them about $233 million since it was founded in 1977.

The Endowment's executive director, Coby Hennecy, said they are reluctant to deviate from their mission to fund TV and radio programming. Endowment money pays for PBS and NPR shows like "Masterpiece," "All Things Considered," and Ken Burns' "Country Music" documentary, as well as some original productions like "This Week in South Carolina."

"Our mission has been very singular and very focused," Hennecy said. "We raise money to support programming that's broadcast on South Carolina ETV and South Carolina Public Radio."

But the SCETV commission's now-former chair Brent Nelson argued that "programming" is too vague and wanted the endowment to negotiate with the commission to come up with a written agreement to specify — and potentially broaden — what exactly the money could go towards. 

He said he wanted money for ETV to buy a new live transmission truck to cover events like inaugurations or debates. He also wanted funding to replace outdated analog cameras with new digital cameras. Nelson said those suggestions were rejected by Hennecy, which she denies.

The fracture led Nelson and commissioners Jill Holt and Karen Martin to resign on Tuesday. They announced their departure in a sharply worded op-ed in The Post and Courier reflecting months of escalating personal disputes and a breakdown of trust.

They also protested new appointments by Gov. Henry McMaster to the eight-member commission who were more aligned with the Endowment's view on how the money should be spent.

"Recently the endowment’s leaders and their politically powerful allies have taken actions aimed at taking over the commission rather than engaging our concerns," the trio wrote.

McMaster's spokesman, Brian Symmes, said the governor was confident in the ability of the new appointees, Larry Fritz and Ray Sharpe, to "help lead ETV in fulfilling its mission of providing high-quality public television to the people of South Carolina."

The increased pressure on the endowment stems in part from a decline in taxpayer money going to ETV. In recent years, ETV has been increasingly squeezed by fiscal conservatives in the Legislature, which provides one source of the organization's funding.

In 2011, then-Gov. Nikki Haley proposed giving ETV no taxpayer money because she believed it needed to be privatized. The General Assembly voted to override that decision, but they did begin to tighten the amount of state funds going to the agency over the years.

After hearing about the ETV funding dilemma and the Endowment's concerns last summer, a legislative oversight panel suggested that the two sides come together to sign a memorandum of understanding.

State Rep. Jay West, the Belton Republican who leads the subcommittee, said he thought both sides had some valid arguments.

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"We clearly saw there was some ambiguity in how things worked and we thought it would be best if they worked together," West said.

The commission tried to use the memorandum as a way to "modernize" the relationship between the two entities. In a March meeting, the commission passed a resolution suggesting that the memorandum should allow ETV to have access to the endowment's donor lists.

But endowment officials worried that any changes to what they fund or their control of donor lists would jeopardize their consistently high marks from charity analysts, who rate nonprofit organizations for their financial transparency and how closely they are hewing to their stated missions. 

They also believed a new arrangement was unnecessary, arguing the relationship between the two groups had worked fine without a memorandum for four decades. 

After pressing the issue for months, Nelson and Padgett relented on their requests for a memorandum in an August meeting, with Padgett acknowledging it would be "more divisive than helpful," according to minutes of the meeting. 

Then, after McMaster appointed new commissioners who agreed with the endowment, Nelson felt he had lost the support of a majority of the commission and resigned, along with Holt and Martin.

After the op-ed published, Padgett, who arrived at ETV from Georgia Public Broadcasting in October 2017, released a statement reaffirming the relationship between the endowment and ETV, seemingly putting an end to a year and a half of conflict.

"It is a private-public partnership that has worked for four decades and benefitted every corner of our state and beyond," he wrote. "We look forward to continuing to work together to serve the state and citizens of South Carolina."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.