Almost $490 Million Unused From DTV Coupon Funding: Source

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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.

However, that didn't mean the money wasn't needed as an insurance policy after Congress did not 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 $241.6 million to the treasury left over from the DTV-to-analog coupon program, with that money  divided up by Congress between HR 3326 the-just passed Defense appropriations bill ($128 million) and a jobs bill ($111 million). The jobs bill is technicially HR 2847, a Commerce, Justice. Science and related agencies appropriations bill (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 approximately $2.6 million 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 was left over from the original $1.34 billion funding as well. Although NTIA was free to return the $240 million it received and didn't use in coupon funding from the stimulus package,  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.

The bottom line: of the total $1.83 billion Congress put into the program, $489 million --or, in effect, all but $1 million of the stimulus allocation for coupons --  was not used and is now going to public safety, jobs and the defense budget.

And while on the surface it sounds as if that extra funding wasn't necessary after all, 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 to free up that initial funding would have essentially covered the program.