By KEITH LAING, THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Jan. 6, 2009………Cuts to library funding proposed in the House and Senate are more like bookends than back-to-back pages, setting up a possible page turner conference committee between the chambers.
A budget proposal released Tuesday by the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Committee calls for $434,000 less in state aid to public libraries. However, the panel’s House counterparts are recommending $4.3 million in cuts to library funding, with individual counties facing reductions between $20,000 and $100,000.
The House’s number is similar to the cut proposed in December by Secretary of State Kurt Browning, whose department oversees library funding, when cuts were first discussed before lawmakers.
Browning told House members then that the area of his department’s budget that could best absorb the blow of a 6-10 percent cut, which state agencies were asked to ponder, is the largest: that’s libraries. Funding libraries makes up 46 percent of the state department’s budget.
However, Senate economic development committee chairman Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Tuesday his panel was trying to cut as little as possible from the library budget and would not reconsider its recommendation before negotiations with the House, which are expected to take place this weekend.
“We’re holding firm on that and I think we’ll probably go to conference with that,” he said during Tuesday’s meeting. “The House has hit libraries quite a bit more, so that will be a conference issue.”
The House’s economic development committee chairman, Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, did not immediately respond to request from the News Service for comment. But Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, said he agreed more with the Senate’s approach.
Gibbons, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Economic Development Committee, said the state should allow libraries and other agencies facing possible cuts to find ways to make up lost revenue.
“The Senate has taken a more studied approach to this,” Gibbons said. “We (in the House) haven’t done the work and we’re not willing to be creative and have flexibility instead of just cuts.”
Cuts to library funding have also been opposed by several advocacy groups, including the Florida Library Association and the Children’s Campaign. Both have argued that people struggling during the economic downturn increasingly turn to libraries for help.
That is particularly true when it comes to Internet access for job searches, library advocates have said, so any cuts would doubly harm Florida citizens.
Additionally, Florida Library Association executive director Faye Roberts said library aid has been cut in the previous two fiscal years, causing 40 library construction projects to be delayed, 521 library employees to be laid off and 36 libraries to cut back hours. The construction projects alone would have added 405,700 square feet of library space in Florida, Roberts said.
However, Roberts said, library use continues to rise despite the cuts. Library use increased 6.7 percent between September 2007 and September 2008, she said. Book circulation rose 9.7 percent in the same year.
“We understand the state is facing the worst budget challenge in modern times, (but) both the Senate’s proposed reduction of $434,000 and the House’s proposed reduction of $4.3 million would be in addition to the mandatory 4 percent hold back of $1.06 million,” Roberts said. “State funding is needed so that libraries can help Floridians find jobs, get access to government services and help children learn – all important benefits in the current economic climate.”
Linda Alexionok, executive director of the The Children’s Campaign, an advocacy group that lobbies the Legislature on children’s issues, agreed that libraries can ill-afford another budget cut. Alexionok said either proposed amount would harm children.
“We shouldn’t be reducing opportunities for our youngest learners to go to libraries at a time when families are facing crisis,” Alexionok said. “Libraries are a place of continuity for children and families.”
Alexionok added that as families face constrained budgets, much like the state, they may be forced to let go of things like Internet access at home, making libraries all the more important for children.
“Libraries allow our children to stay connected globally and not fall behind the world even more,” she said.