October 21, 2014

Working the Halls of a Typical State Legislature | Advocate’s Corner

SB 858 Bill Signing Working the Halls of a Typical State Legislature | Advocates Corner

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (center, seated) at the May 2012 signing of legislation that designates public libraries as providing essential community services during a federally-declared emergency.

In spite of the gridlock associated with the U.S. Congress, state legislatures across America are presently hard at work. Like many, my home state of Maryland is currently grappling with a series of complex and controversial issues. A host of proposals are currently being debated and run the gamut from bills related to gun control and public safety; to others seeking increased funding for infrastructure projects, and even to legislation aimed at promoting offshore wind power as a source of sustainable electricity.

During its typical ninety-day, annual legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly will consider approximately 2,500 individual bills. Amid all of this, the legislature must complete its one constitutionally-required task: the passage of the state’s operating budget for the impending 2014 fiscal year. As one might expect, issues affecting libraries are woven throughout many bills currently being considered by legislatures like Maryland’s. The most obvious place to look for how state governments impact local public libraries would be within a state’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Here in Maryland, after a cut of nearly 7 percent at the beginning of the Great Recession, aid to local public libraries has been level-funded since fiscal year 2010. Each of Maryland’s twenty-three counties and Baltimore City receive aid at a level of $14 provided for each resident, which is to be used help cover operating and capital expenses. Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, as the state library resource center, also receives an additional per-capita allotment to cover the costs of this role. Assuming that the existing federal budget sequestration and associated cuts is resolved prior to permanent damage being done, our state’s fiscal outlook is projected to be stable going forward.

A key reason for this relative stability in library funding has been the vocal advocacy of supporters across our state. Each year, library trustees, foundation board members, and friends of local library branches have made the trek to our state capital of Annapolis. While there, these dedicated volunteers have met with their legislators and successfully protected state aid to Maryland’s public libraries. Other constituencies that were not as vocal have not fared nearly as well as libraries. This just goes to prove the truth inherent in that old Woody Allen quote that says, “eighty percent of success is showing up.”

Beyond budget vigilance, trustees and other advocates for public libraries are frequently called upon to weigh in with regard to a host of related policy issues. During the last few legislative sessions, there has been at least one library-specific issue addressed by the Maryland General Assembly. A few examples are referenced below.

  • As part of the current 2013 session, legislation is being considered that would alter the state share and local matching requirements for Maryland’s $5 million public library capital grant program. The bill proposes a minimum (50 percent) and maximum (90 percent) state share for a county library capital project. Beginning in fiscal year 2014, per capita wealth measures would be used to calculate these county matching requirements, thereby allowing less affluent areas to be eligible for greater grant proceeds. The bill reflects recommendations resulting from a study conducted by the state, in cooperation with the Maryland Association of Public Library Administrators.
  • In 2012, the Maryland General Assembly considered and ultimately passed legislation that designated public libraries as providing essential community services during federally-declared emergency situations. The bill was designed to facilitate public libraries being treated like other designated agencies and therefore given priority in the restoration of power and Internet access. The legislation, supported by the Maryland Library Association, also should ultimately enhance the ability for public libraries, whose facilities are damaged during a federal declared disaster, to qualify for FEMA disaster assistance.
  • During the 2010 legislative session, bills were proposed that would have mandated a process through which non-management level local public library employees would become unionized. At that time (and still to this day) only two Maryland county public libraries have collective bargaining rights through a labor organization. Three years ago, library advocates for the non-unionized county library systems effectively fought this proposal, on the grounds that a forced, statewide requirement to unionize was inappropriate, and not considered desirable by library staff in these jurisdictions.

Other bills that related to more general topics, like statewide employment/benefits laws, public procurement statutes, and so forth also have the potential to impact public library systems. Members of library boards of trustees must remain vigilant and do what they can to closely monitor developments from the state capital. Here in Maryland, we are fortunate that the Maryland Library Association and its legislative panel do an excellent job of informing library advocates, and also mobilizing them to spread the word about issues important to the profession. The best advice that I can offer to fellow public library trustees is to connect with your state association, and stay informed of events as they happen, rather than after the fact.

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Jeffrey Smith is a member of the Baltimore County (MD) Board of Library Trustees and president of the Foundation for Baltimore County Public Library.

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