Missouri Budget Defunding Could Cause Rural Libraries To Shorten Hours, Shutter

Libraries in Missouri, particularly rural libraries, felt a major blow this week when the state House granted initial approval to slash the roughly $4.5 million in state aid to public libraries from its budget.

Missouri Capitol building exterior with large trees framing the shot, with a fountain in the foregroundLibraries in Missouri, particularly rural libraries, felt a major blow this week when the state House granted initial approval to slash the roughly $4.5 million in state aid to public libraries from its budget.

The chair of the budget committee, Rep. Cody Smith (R-Carthage), spearheaded the move, stating that funds would be used to subsidize a lawsuit challenging a Missouri law banning sexually explicit material in school libraries. The Missouri Library Association and the Missouri Association of School Librarians joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the suit, which is being heard in the Kansas City Circuit Court.

Rep. Peter Merideth (D-South St. Louis City), ranking Democrat on the House budget committee, told Library Journal the argument that libraries would be using state funds to contribute to the legal battle is inaccurate.

“We pointed to the [Missouri] library association’s website. It makes it very clear they are not spending a penny on it,” he said. “The library association is a named party, but they are not spending any money on the suit.”

“It’s punitive, because they think that their funding was being used to pay for a lawsuit with the ACLU against Senate Bill 775,” Otter Bowman, president of the Missouri Library Association, told LJ. “Of course, that’s completely unfounded. We’re volunteer organizations. The ACLU is providing all of their services pro bono.”

“It feels 100 percent politically motivated,” she added. “Here in Missouri, there are some really staunch right-wing people who don’t like public libraries and they don’t like public schools. And they are just trying to make it really difficult for us to exist.”

The Wentzville School District, which banned such books as All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Matthew Johnson and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison—it was ultimately reinstated—spurred the ACLU lawsuit, which was joined by the Missouri library associations.

If the Senate doesn’t restore the funding, Bowman said, the House’s action could result in litigation, because the Missouri state constitution guarantees state aid to public libraries.

“There is some time here,” Merideth pointed out. “The budget won’t actually pass until the start of May,” adding that the funding wouldn’t dry up until July 1. “It is our hope, for sure, that the Senate puts that funding back in,” he said. “But I’ve learned not to bank on the Senate always landing on the side of reason.”



Bowman also noted that the zero appropriation could impact rural libraries, which receive a bigger chunk of the state funding.

The main source of funding for libraries in Missouri comes from property taxes. Bowman’s library, the Daniel Boone Regional Library in Columbia, receives $168,000 annually in state aid.

“But that’s a tiny piece of our whole budget. That’s what we use to pay for digital resources and some other services,” she told LJ. “For a rural library, that’s often how they stay open, because they’ll get matching funds from the federal government also. So it’s like they’re going to lose twice, because if they don’t get their state funding then they can’t get their matching federal funds either. Those rural libraries are probably going to have to reduce their hours. Some of them might have to close because they just don’t have enough money. They’re on a shoestring as it is.”

This is the latest in a series of disappointments for Missouri libraries. Last year, S.B. 775, the ban that is the subject of the suit, was passed. It prohibits persons affiliated with a public or private elementary or secondary school in an official capacity—including librarians and media center personnel—from knowingly providing “explicit sexual material” to students. The bill, which went into effect in August 2022, makes delivering that material a Class A misdemeanor.

“School districts started using that law to ban books,” Bowman said. “And most of the books that have been banned haven’t really had that clear graphic sexual nature. They’ve stretched it a little bit, so that it’s mainly LGBT books or books that are written by authors of color that have been banned. And they have used that law as justification for it.”

Also last year, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft proposed a rule that would withdraw state funding from libraries that offer “pornographic material” to minors. The rule is set to go into effect May 30.

Merideth noted that one intention of those favoring defunding libraries is to “scare the libraries into backing out of the lawsuit.” Others in that camp, he said, want to force librarians into withdrawing their membership from the association.

“Most of the more moderate Republicans that also know that funding libraries is a good thing at least privately are saying, ‘Oh, you know, the money is going back in the Senate,’” he added. “Just like they were very confident that the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion bans that got included in every budget bill this week are going to get removed in the Senate. Just like a few years ago, they were convinced that Medicaid expansion funding would get put back in the Senate, and of course, it never was.”

The ACLU of Missouri issued a statement on the heels of the House budget committee’s proposal to slash state funding to libraries a week before the vote by the full House.

“The house budget committee’s choice to retaliate against two private, volunteer-led organizations [the two Missouri library associations] by punishing the patrons of Missouri’s public libraries is abhorrent,” the statement said. “As with every case when the ACLU represents someone, we are not charging our clients to challenge the unconstitutional book ban the legislature passed last year.”

The statement continued, “If the members of the committee are concerned about preserving taxpayer funds, they should stop enacting laws they know do not meet constitutional muster, not burden local governments in a misguided effort to silence organizations who object to the legislature’s overreach.”

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