Missouri’s Republican-led House of Representatives has given initial approval to a state budget that would strip libraries of state funding in what appears to be retaliation for a lawsuit filed by librarians seeking to overturn a law expanding book bans in schools.
Rep. Cody Smith (R-Carthage), chair of the House Budget Committee, proposed eliminating all funding for public libraries in the state last week, after a lawsuit was filed by the Missouri Libraries Association (MLA) in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against a state law that bans certain materials from schools and libraries.
Smith’s proposal was passed by the committee and forwarded to the full House, where it was approved as part of the full budget on Tuesday. The full budget must be approved once more before it is sent to the Senate for consideration.
The Missouri law that librarians are currently challenging in court bans materials that the state has deemed sexually explicit from schools, including school libraries. The law has been used to purge hundreds of titles from the shelves, particularly books that include LGBTQ characters or racial justice themes. Holocaust history and human anatomy books are also among the materials that have been banned.
School officials, including librarians, who are found in violation of the law are subject to fines of up to $2,000 and jail sentences of up to a year.
If approved, the budget cuts would do real harm to communities across the state, particularly in rural areas that rely on state funding due to small tax bases, Missouri librarians have said.
Libraries with limited budgets in the state “would have to reduce hours, their collections would probably not be able to be updated in any sort of way, resources that they offered to the community like Wi-Fi connection and job assistance… all of those services would be at risk,” said Missouri Libraries Association president Otter Bowman.
The move by Republicans may also be illegal, as Missouri’s constitution requires the state legislature to provide funding for all free public libraries, though it doesn’t provide an exact figure or formula for how it must do so.
The state’s policy is “to accept the obligation” of funding libraries, Article IX Section 10 of the document says, adding: “When any such subdivision or municipality supports a free library, the general assembly shall grant aid to such public library in such manner and in such amounts as may be provided by law.”
Missouri’s librarians will likely challenge any drastic budget cuts, as the MLA has been organizing against right-wing threats to intellectual freedom for years. In an interview for a Truthout op-ed published this week, Joe Kohlburn, a former chair of MLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, noted that the latest efforts by Republican lawmakers have galvanized librarians in ways he hasn’t seen before.
“I’ve been doing activist work in this state for a long time. And this is the first time I’ve felt uniform solidarity,” Kohlburn said. “I have not talked to anyone who isn’t on our side.”