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Proposal to fund rural libraries undergoes change

 Edward Manzanares in January pushes a wheelbarrow with a load of wood for use in one of two stoves that heat the Vallecitos Community Center and Library, one of New Mexico's small rural libraries that would benefit from a funding measure before the Legislature. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Edward Manzanares in January pushes a wheelbarrow with a load of wood for use in one of two stoves that heat the Vallecitos Community Center and Library, one of New Mexico’s small rural libraries that would benefit from a funding measure before the Legislature. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A stripped-down version of an initiative to fund small rural libraries in New Mexico is making its way through the Legislature.

An initial proposal for a $50 million endowment to establish a permanent funding source for 50 local government, tribal and nonprofit libraries from the endowment’s investment earnings has turned into a $5 million line item in the huge budget bill.

House Bill 2, which funds state government, was recently passed by the House and is now going through the Senate process.

The original rural libraries measure sponsored by state Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, would have sent most of the funds from endowment interest earnings directly to 50 small libraries. The new funding scheme would appropriate the dollars to the State Library to distribute to rural libraries as grants.

Because of the state constitution’s anti-donation clause – which bars the use of public resources by private entities – the 15 rural libraries operating as private, nonprofit organizations would not able to use the funding toward capital improvement projects like repairs or construction.

“It should go fine,” Ortiz y Pino said of the revised funding plan. “It just becomes a greatly pared down and simplified bill.”

 Shel Neymark, left, a rural libraries advocate from Embudo, talks with Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, about a bill to fund the small libraries on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Shel Neymark, left, a rural libraries advocate from Embudo, talks with Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, about a bill to fund the small libraries on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Last week, Ortiz y Pino and Shel Neymark, an Embudo-based artist who helped found the Embudo Valley Library in Dixon, attended Senate committee meetings to discuss two separate bills introduced for the rural library initiative.

As amended last week, Ortiz y Pino’s Senate Bill 264 no longer has any mention of a $50 million appropriation. He said the dollar amount was dropped so the bill would not conflict with the HB 2 budget measure. The Senate Finance Committee, he explained, would not pass anything to the full Senate that isn’t outlined in HB 2.

He later described the $5 million now allocated as an “endowed trust” rather than a permanent endowment. He said that means the state wouldn’t invest the $5 million. Funding for the trust would have to be requested from the Legislature on a year-to-year basis.

“But we’ll just have to roll up our sleeves and get that support for out-year appropriations,” he said.

He told the Journal he still hopes in future years to build up the amount of money in the rural library fund to create an invested endowment. He brought up future goals at Tuesday evening’s Senate Finance meeting.

“I’ll just tell you we’ll be back at your doorstep next year seeking additional money to create that fund because we think that’s the one way of securing the future of these rural libraries,” Ortiz y Pino said. He also said he plans to submit amendments to HB 2 with hopes of increasing this year’s funding amount for the small libraries, including many that now depend on donors and fundraisers like carwashes and enchilada dinners to sustain their budgets.

Constitutional amendment out

A companion piece of legislation, proposing a constitutional amendment for the 2020 general election to exempt nonprofit libraries from the anti-donation clause, hit a roadblock at the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday morning. The committee postponed a vote on Senate Joint Resolution 11.

Ortiz y Pino later told the Journal he plans to nix the constitutional amendment idea and focus solely on the funding measure. A list of 50 specific libraries for funding also will be dropped, said Ortiz y Pino.

Without an exemption to the anti-donation clause, 15 of the libraries – private nonprofits – can’t get state money for facility improvements.

“Fixing the roof is a big issue for a lot of these libraries,” Embudo’s Neymark told the committee. “Adding space for meeting rooms, classrooms, is a big issue for a lot of these libraries. That money is really hard to find.”

But members of the Rules Committee expressed concerns about amending the constitution for this purpose. Sens. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, and Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, both said the money should go through the State Library.

Essentially, under this arrangement, the nonprofit libraries could get money for services, but couldn’t use state money to fix up their buildings. This limitation wouldn’t apply to the 35 public libraries that would receive dollars.

One option would be for the state to lease private rural library buildings and possibly make facility improvements, then contract with the libraries for services.

“Then we don’t violate the anti-donation clause and all that,” Sanchez said. “They (the nonprofit libraries) are providing this service to the State Library. I think that’s the route to go. We do it all the time in state government.”

While a bit disappointed about the changes in the funding plan, Neymark said he came into this year’s legislative session knowing there would be give and take, and he’s still pleased that securing some kind of funding for rural libraries looks promising. He said he needs to “think and strategize” about potential ways to address the limitations on nonprofits.

With Ortiz y Pino acknowledging the library funding could be a multi-year endeavor, Neymark said he’ll likely be in the fight for the long haul, as well.

“I’d really prefer to hang out in my studio and make art, but this is really important to me and important to the state,” said Neymark. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think rural libraries were so important to these small parts of the state. Not only to keep the libraries viable, but also the communities viable.”

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