March 20, 2018

Rejected Waiver Requests Put Five States in Danger of Losing IMLS Funding

As states across the nation tighten their belts, library budgets have landed on the chopping block more frequently in the past few years. This year, The Institute for Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS) received eight requests for Maintenance of Effort (MOE) waivers that would let states continue to receive previously approved matching grants through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) even though the funds they’re intended to match will not be provided. That’s more than the IMLS has received in any year since the financial downturn of 2008. Of the eight applicants, only three—Hawaii, Oklahoma, and South Carolina—were awarded waivers. The remaining five states—Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, and Texas—stand to lose federal funding as state legislatures fail to live up to their end of the LSTA grant agreements, which are meant to supplement state spending on library programs, rather than supplant it.

IMLS looks at two main factors when considering MOE waivers. The first is whether the state applying can demonstrate that it experienced exceptional fiscal difficulties that were outside of its control. Since the 2008 financial downturn, Hildreth said, most states have been able to meet that challenge. After it’s established that an applicant state is experiencing tough times, though, those seeking a waiver have to show that cuts to state library budgets are in line with cuts to other agencies around the state. Put simply, it’s not enough to show that times are tough to get a waiver—states must also prove that times are tough all over, and that even during times of economic duress, state libraries are being treated equitably by those penning the budgets. That’s where Texas had a hard time making its case, said IMLS director Susan Hildreth.

”We ask that states provide information on [budget] reductions to similar agencies around the state,” said Hildreth. “In some cases, it can be shown that the state library was not singled out or treated differently. In the case of Texas, that was a challenge for them.”

According to interim Texas State Librarian Ed Seidenberg, the problems in Texas stem from a 67 percent budget cut that hit the state’s libraries in 2012. Those cuts lowered Texas’ contributions to many LSTA supported programs below the 35 percent mark, making them eligible for fewer IMLS dollars. While support levels for the next year are in limbo during the current shutdown of the federal government, Seidenberg expects the failure to get an MOE waiver will cost Texas libraries somewhere between $5 and $7 million in federal funding. While the Texas State Library is preparing an appeal of the decision, it’s unlikely that the funding will return at the normal rate, meaning the state could see cuts in areas like competitive grants for libraries throughout the state to a program that helps public and academic libraries develop their mobile technology presence.

Illinois had received MOE waivers for the last two years, only to have its third request denied. While the funding hit the state expects is a relatively modest $187,000, it could impact adult literacy programs, service for the visually impaired, and grants programs to local libraries throughout the state, according to state library director Anne Craig, who adds that Illinois plans to appeal the ruling. Elsewhere in the Midwest, Michigan state librarian Nancy Robertson said that her state, which was applying for an MOE waiver for the fifth straight year, does not plan to appeal this year’s ruling, nor will it apply for a waiver next year in light of a newly stabilized budget situation.

When asked if so many state libraries requesting MOE waivers is a cause for concern, Hildreth said that funding for state libraries and the programs they administer is clearly an issue, but that despite this year’s spike in waiver requests, budgets are actually becoming more steady—just not at the levels that most librarians would hope for. “We know from other data we collect that state libraries have been suffering from reduced funding,” said Hildreth. “I think we’re reaching a new and lower level of normal. We’ve had some very difficult years and we’re starting to stabilize, but at a lower level than before 2008.”

Seidenberg, for his part, hopes that the loss of funding can represent a teachable moment for Texas legislators, who passed a budget for fiscal 2014 and 2015 that restores much of the funding to state libraries. While he hopes the state’s coming appeal will restore some of the lost funding, he also suggests the LSTA grant cuts will remind legislators to use care when cutting budgets—especially when dealing with funds that earn the state matching federal dollars in the future. “It’s a message we delivered strongly and pretty successfully to then legislature this spring,” said Seidenberg. “I wish they could have heard the message on what the impact would be two years ago when we told them, but they were trying to balance their own budget then.”

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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