November 18, 2017

The Budget Dance: State funding is not “low-hanging fruit” | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerThe legislative budget season triggers a tense cycle for libraries, and this year is no different. State library funding comes under attack, and library advocates mount a defense. Where wisdom prevails, the lines are upheld or even increased, bolstering the key infrastructure libraries bring to our communities. Where short-term thinking trumps strategic insight, the lines get trimmed and trimmed, gaining a relatively minor lift to the state’s bottom line while putting at risk small but significant programs that interconnect our valuable public library resources—and serve as a critical conduit for federal funds to reinforce service.

All too often, as in Missouri this year, the library budget line is seen as easy pickings. Only last month the library community celebrated the release of $6 million in allocated funding for FY15, which was among $43 million in appropriations held back since June 2014 by Gov. Jay Nixon to cope with revenue shortfalls. Advocates had been persistent and creative, intensifying the messaging earlier this year under the banner Save Missouri Libraries (#savemolibraries).

They succeeded, but their respite was short-lived, as several weeks later the Missouri legislature advanced to Nixon a 2016 budget that will cut state aid to libraries by a disastrous 79 percent and take down funding for the state’s Internet access subsidy by 36 percent. [For an update on the Missouri state budget process since this editorial was published, see “MO 2016 Budget Drops Aid to Libraries Almost 80 Percent,” by Bob Warburton]

“It’s just when trying to fund social services at the rate it’s growing, we’re looking for money in any area possible,” said Rep. Craig Redmon (R-4th Dist.) about the “tough decisions” needed during the budget process as reported in the Kirksville Daily Express. “Unfortunately, library [funding] this year was the low-hanging fruit.”

This kind of statement is painful to read. It indicates that the impact of library work—including on those very social services and the need for them—is not understood. Nor is the key role of state funding in elevating that work. Despite our best efforts, libraries take the hit and reduce services or expend more effort seeking alternate support instead of serving their communities. They also must spend more time and money reinventing the wheel, duplicating resources they could otherwise share with one another.

State level library funding is the connective tissue linking these local institutions. Shrinking it ultimately disconnects the network, hampering library service in each of the state’s communities, not to mention the ability to scale solid ideas. Insult follows injury when, as Missouri Library Association’s Jim Schmidt pointed out, state cuts are likely to be compounded by reductions in federal money that is based on state funding levels.

Unfortunately, Missouri libraries are not alone. Right now advocates for libraries in Vermont and Connecticut are also among those pushing hard to avoid serious cuts to state funding, as LJ’s Lisa Peet recently reported (see p. 12; ow.ly/MnxzF). In Connecticut, proposed cuts in the two-year budget threaten, among other things, the statewide Connecticard, which enables patrons to borrow materials from any library in the state. This program has been in use since 1973. This is a telling example of how, when state funding is at risk, so is critical cooperation among libraries.

Effective state funding raises the bar for all library service, addresses gaps in local support levels, and elevates the capacity of this network of vital public institutions. It fosters an ever more effective ecosystem to respond to the needs of the public.

The irony of reductions that threaten this balance isn’t lost on those striving to strengthen the ties among institutions, increase capability, and enable an even greater collective impact. That felt particularly pointed last month when President Barack Obama announced the ConnectED Library Challenge, calling on libraries to collaborate more deeply with partners to get library cards for every student, and the Open Ebook Initiative, designed to get ebooks into all kids’ hands (ow.ly/MnxjV). Libraries are natural partners in this work, and doing it in cooperation will be more powerful than not. State level cuts undermine efforts like these—driving libraries back to local silos, reinforcing inequities among neighboring communities, and stunting capacity. Far from “low-hanging fruit,” state library funding is more like seed corn, small but mighty in fueling future initiatives.

Some people might think this funding dance is the best we can hope for given the reality of our divided government. However, I would like to think we can do better to make the most of limited resources at all levels by working in concert instead of at odds.

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This article was published in Library Journal's May 15, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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