November 19, 2017

Library Advocates Fend off Kansas Legislative Threat

Courtesy Lawrence Public Library

Courtesy Lawrence Public Library

Kansas library professionals, forced to mobilize quickly and using social media to rally support and spread their message, convinced lawmakers to remove language from a fast-tracked tax bill that they said threatened the survival of the state’s seven regional systems and, in turn, promised a trickle-down reduction in services for public libraries.

The bill, known as HB 2719, was designed, legislators wrote, to “empower” Kansas voters with greater control over property taxes by requiring levies to be set or approved by an elected body. A host of public entities would be affected—including airports, museums, parks, recreation commissions, water districts, and fire services—but it was the section on libraries that spurred the single most concentrated advocacy effort.

With less than a week to organize and act, the Kansas library community took the fight to the state House of Representatives, making a forceful case at a Committee on Taxation hearing that swayed lawmakers to amend HB 2719, eliminating all mention of libraries. The revised measure later advanced to the Senate.

“It was a major victory for libraries in Kansas,” Eric Gustafson, who heads the governmental affairs committee for the Kansas Library Association (KLA), told Library Journal.

“Our voices were heard,” added Heather Braum, the NExpress coordinator at the regional Northeast Kansas Library System (NEKLS) in Lawrence. “People heard that libraries are critical community services. Positive advocacy across a social network can spread. Libraries are important and people know it.”

Or, as Rep. Marvin Kleeb, who chairs the House Committee on Taxation, told the library lobbyists at the state capital on March 14, “This is exactly why we hold a hearing.”

Avoiding an onerous process

It was, several Kansas library professionals told LJ, a fight they couldn’t afford to lose. As originally drafted, HB 2719 required annual votes on each regional library budget—not simply the tax rate. The result, sources said, would be an expensive public election across multiple rural counties that would be extremely difficult to win. And if those budgets went down at the polls, the law prescribed no recourse or remedy for regional libraries to raise revenue.

Tom Taylor, director of the Andover Public Library, wrote in a LinkedIn post (which has attracted more than 24,500 views) that annual votes on regional library budgets amounted to “a process so demanding and excessive it will certainly fail.”

HB 2719 also would have invoked a mandate cap on regional library tax rates at .75 mills, far short of what all seven currently use. But Braum said that cap had already been removed from the books in 1999, calling it just one of many examples of outdated statutory language incorporated throughout the bill.

Regionals: a crucial support system

Established by state statute in 1965, regional libraries in Kansas bolster local services through grants, training programs, and a shared materials service facilitated through a courier network. They are not brick-and-mortar facilities, but rather a support system that over time has expanded to include school, academic, and special libraries. Unelected trustees set budgets.

Thirty-two percent of Kansas libraries have operating budgets of less than $20,000, Gustafson said, and “cannot survive” without the grants and services provided by the regional systems. Passage of the bill, the KLA warned, would mean that “48 communities lose their libraries,” with another 58 placed at serious financial risk.

In his committee testimony, Matt Nojonen, director of the Leavenworth Public Library, used his own work situation to illustrate libraries’ predicament, stating, “The bill will manage with the stroke of a pen what years of bad economy failed to do: force a local tax increase or force cuts so deep that the first public library in the first city in the state of Kansas, an institution proudly supported by its community since 1899, will become a sad shadow of itself.”

Lobbying on the Fast Track

As the Kansas library community organized to oppose the bill, it knew there was precious little time. The Kansas House of Representatives introduced HB 2719 on March 8 with a public hearing by the Committee on Taxation scheduled for just six days later. It was a challenge on many fronts: how to spread word about the bill, develop a coordinated strategy, lobby lawmakers, and craft individual testimony all within a handful of days.

Social media became an important resource. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn helped spread the message and would prove instrumental in producing a turnout in the state capital that would grab lawmakers’ attention.

Moving testimony

The pivotal event was the public hearing. Crowding a small fifth-floor room in Topeka, library officials delivered their message through a show of numbers, written testimony from several Kansas library directors, and other oral statements. Multiple people who attended the session told Library Journal that some legislators seemed surprised by the information presented about libraries. “I think there was a lot of surprise,” Braum said of committee members. “Like, you guys do all this work at libraries?”

As Kleeb gaveled the public hearing to order on that Monday afternoon at the State House, it was evident the library community had successfully communicated the dangers posed by the bill.

A crowd estimated at about 175 people turned out to watch and listen. Some had driven several hours to be present at the 3:30 p.m. session. The hearing room’s 52 seats for the public filled quickly; other observers jammed the perimeter around the legislators while more crowded in the outer hallway. “That was incredible to see,” said Braum, who live-tweeted from inside the hearing room. Foam fingers bearing the slogan “Kansas Libraries #1” were handed out.

Testimony from ten Kansas library directors was submitted to the committee in written form, Gustafson said. KLA also lined up two speakers to make its case: Nojonen and Roger Carswell, director of the Southeast Kansas Library System (SEKLS).

Alan Cobb, a lobbyist for Americans for Prosperity, was the only person to speak in favor of the bill. Surrounded by library professionals eager to denounce the measure, Cobb joked, “I feel like I should go on the record and say, ‘I do like libraries.’”

Nojonen tried to educate lawmakers about regional systems. The Leavenworth Public Library works in conjunction with NEKLS, and Nojonen told the committee, “Last year, our patrons borrowed 26,000 items from other libraries and we loaned over 16,000 of our items to other libraries. Thanks to NEKLS, we are blessed with a daily delivery service at the incredibly low cost of four cents per item in 2015.”

In his oral testimony, Carswell said, “I understand the aversion to paying taxes and the desire for accountability. But the statutes already provide budget oversight at multiple levels and have worked well for 50 years. We in the regional library systems have proven to be good stewards of public funds.”

Penner attended the public hearing, but did not testify. Still, she described herself as moved by the library community’s organized opposition. “It was an inspiring day,” she told LJ.

Asked if this success could have happened without the use of social media, Braum said, “It flat-out does not. We started the firestorm but the network took over.”

That doesn’t mean there weren’t more than a few anxious days. “You feel kind of sick with worry,” Gustafson said. “You’re doing everything you can, but that’s what occupies your mind as you’re doing it.”

Rapid response

Before the hearing adjourned, Kleeb said the committee would heed the library officials’ concerns.

After the oral and written testimony was presented, Kleeb told the committee that elections for the regional systems might not be practical after all. He promised to take the concerns into account as the bill was “worked” by House members before a vote.

Kleeb, a Republican, did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.

The battle wasn’t completely won that day, however. After the Monday hearing, HB 2719 was scheduled to be “worked” in committee later that week. There were reasonable assurances the language involving libraries would be excised, but Braum and a handful of library advocates returned to the state capital to monitor the process.

On March 18, Rep. Tom Sawyer, a Democrat, introduced the amendment removing all mention of libraries. It was approved. Mention of the 1999 millage cap for libraries was also stricken. The remaining content was merged into a larger property tax omnibus bill, House Substitute for SB280, which was passed out of committee and sent to the full chamber. On March 23, that bill passed the House by a 123–0 vote, and it moved to a tax conference committee after a Senate vote to non-concur on March 24.

A House-Senate conference committee will take up the matter after the legislature reconvenes on April 27.

A surprise attack

It was, at first, a battle no one saw coming.

KLA officials had no inkling the tax jurisdiction bill was even in the works before its introduction. Library officials quickly came to view HB 2719 as an offshoot of Kansas’s burgeoning political conservatism, and indeed the bill gained public support from Americans for Prosperity, a national anti-tax organization backed by Republican Party power brokers Charles D. and David H. Koch, better known simply as the Koch brothers. (Americans for Prosperity also recently funded robocalls that helped defeat a library referendum in Plainfield, IL).

It was KLA lobbyist Patrick Vogelsberg who first sounded the alarm, but even he did not learn of HB 2719 until March 9, the day after the measure was introduced. Gustafson and members of KLA’s legislative affairs committee were in contact that afternoon. The first order of business, he said, was poring over the 26-page bill and determining just how libraries would be affected. “It took us five or six readings to get our heads around the bill,” said Braum, who was attending a conference in Philadelphia when she first learned of HB 2719.

Committee members met via videoconference twice on March 10 and a strategy began to coalesce. Email blasts would go to library officials across Kansas, explaining the dilemma and urging them to immediately contact individual state representatives. Meanwhile, KLA officials began drafting talking points to help sway those legislators. “We had to make this personal,” said Braum.

One critical decision, Gustafson said, was made early in the process: Lobbying efforts would focus almost solely on protecting the seven regional library networks.

Over that weekend, the library community gained an important ally in Marci Penner, a noted Kansas writer and long-time advocate for the state’s rural communities.

Penner, founder and executive director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation and the author of several Kansas travel guides, including, 8 Wonders of Kansas Guidebook, told LJ that she saw a Facebook item about HB 2719 and wasted little time siding against the bill as a whole. In a her own Facebook post that was shared almost 1,000 times, Penner urged concerned Kansans to attend the public hearing. “This isn’t political,” Penner wrote on March 12. “This is simply about preserving our way of life.”

Braum, for one, was impressed. “Marci got the word out,” she said. “People know who she is in Kansas, especially in the rural part of the state. When she speaks, people listen.”

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Comments

  1. I’m so glad to hear about the Library system being saved from political ravaging – as that is exactly what it sounds like the Koch Bros. appear to support – for what reason, I just cannot fathom.

    I just wanted to drop a line in support of any and all Libraries around the world. I grew up in a mid-sized city and spent many, many hours each week at our City’s main Library because, back then, it had a small zoo in the basement. Y’know, with lizards, snakes, rabbits, gerbils and so on. And in front of each viewing window were tons of books that were either about that animal or had that animal in the storyline.

    It opened up a new world for me, and I feel that this love of reading has kept my mind and my intelligence at its best because I know that we never stop learning – that we need to learn the facts, the reasons why and just how things work. I find that people who read are more thoughtful, intelligent, conversant and enjoyable to have conversations about anything and everything. I’m older now, retired and doddering/puttering around the yard all the time, but I never stop reading. I am either reading a book from Amazon on my Kindle (or my Tablet) or am reading an eBook from our local Library.

    Strangely enough, even though I can download library eBooks from home just by logging on, I still enjoy the experience of physically going to the library, sitting down at one of the many computer stations, logging on, checking out eBooks and loading them directly to my connected Tablet. Then I will go into the other room where there is a fireplace and soft, comfy chairs, grab a free coffee and sit and read for a while. It is transcendent to me because I immediately get into a Mindfulness zone which also becomes very zen-like because, after more than 50 years of Library access, I still have a twitch of memory of the times I was 6 years old, being in the Main Library and seeing all those books, and animals, for the first time.

    It was, and still is, life changing. Keep the Libraries alive, folks. We have them for a very good reason!.

  2. Now that the election is stolen and we are doomed to Kansas-type Rethug hyperfascism all over amurrikkka, it is more important than ever to preserve libraries from the miserable John Bircher sociopaths the Koches and their ilk. Remember. Rethugs HATE learning, HATE books, HATE libraries–because, as Raygun’s evil minions said, ‘we want people stupid.’ No one but a moron votes Rethug…..ergo kill all learning and education.
    Do not allow this to happen. Resist. Fight. Mobilize, and fight as dirty as the Rethugs. ‘they go low, we go high’ got us into this catastrophe; only guerrilla hand to hand dirty combat will get us out.