A new measure working its way through the state legislature seeks to increase funding for all eligible public libraries across Montana, even if the bill won’t benefit those in its sponsor’s own district.
Introduced by Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, House Bill 91 would raise ImagineIF Libraries’ state funding level to $42,585 — if it were eligible. But Kalispell’s public library sacrificed that eligibility when the Flathead County Commission supported an embattled library board’s decision to hire a director lacking the requisite qualifications, costing it tens of thousands of dollars in annual funding.
Sprunger, a first-term legislator whose Kalispell district includes ImagineIF’s prominent downtown location, championed the bill anyway.
“When I was knocking on doors during the election season, I heard over and over how important our local library was and the desire to find ways to support it,” Sprunger told the Beacon. “This is a six-year statutory appropriation, and I wanted to make sure this funding is ready to go if our local library pursues the opportunity it offers. In the meantime, this is an opportunity to impact 82 communities in Montana with access to enhanced, bettered library services.”
House Bill 91, which was requested by the Montana State Library (MSL), would increase the amount of funding allocated to public libraries each year from 40 cents per capita to 50 cents per capita, and would extend the distributions to accredited tribal college libraries that provide public library services to their communities.
“I’m pleased to bring this bill because I believe our libraries are incredibly important, perhaps now more than ever,” Sprunger told members of the House State Administration Committee during the measure’s first hearing on Jan. 11. “We also need to be able to inform ourselves. Those who are informed are empowered — empowered to build a better life for themselves, and to better understand and maintain their freedoms. Our public libraries ensure that right.”
To receive a share of state funding, public libraries must meet standards set forth by the MSL meant to “identify a base level of service that residents or visitors should receive wherever they are in Montana.” According to Montana State Librarian Jennie Stapp, only three of the state’s 82 public libraries did not meet certification standards in the current fiscal year, including ImagineIF Libraries which serves the Flathead Valley.
Under the current standards, the director of a library serving a community of more than 25,000 people must have a Master’s of Library Science (MLS) degree or equivalent to maintain certification from the state. In January 2022, the ImagineIF Board of Trustees voted to hire Ashley Cummins as the new library director, despite her not holding an equivalent graduate degree, knowingly costing the library $35,731 in FY 23.
According to Stapp, under the new 50-cent funding equation in HB 91, ImagineIF Libraries would be eligible for $42,585 in state funding in the future, should it meet certification standards.
During proponent testimony during the committee hearing, Stapp offered legislators a brief history of public library funding and the need to increase the state’s distribution.
“This is about funding for your libraries, your communities and your constituents,” Stapp said. “This increase is necessary to help libraries address inflation, as well as to strive to ensure no libraries are negatively impacted if this funding is extended to tribal libraries.”
Public library funding comes from a variety of sources, primarily through local municipalities. In 2013 the legislature established the state aid appropriation amount of 40 cents per capita, which was reauthorized in 2017 with a 2023 sunset. The funds are dispersed among public libraries that meet certification standards each year in proportion to the area and population being served, and the funding allocated by the local county government.
Additional proponents of the funding measure included the Montana Association of Counties (MACO), the Montana Rural Education Association, the Montana League of Cities and Towns and the Montana Library Association. The bill passed through committee without opposition.
During the House floor session, several legislators opposed Sprunger’s bill with Rep. Ron Marshall (R-Hamilton) mischaracterizing the funding as going to MSL personnel. All funding appropriated in HB 91 is distributed to individual public libraries to utilize as needed, with MSL serving only to administer the funding.
According to the bill’s fiscal note, the new per capita payment would increase annual state distribution from $433,690 to $542,113 through 2029.
“With this bill we’re prioritizing a common place to build community, to connect, to learn and to inform ourselves,” Sprunger told the House. “We have to remember our children are currently being sucked into a world where they are informed by Tik Tok and Xbox. Our libraries are the last strong stand against that. We owe it to our children to ensure that they can inform themselves, so they can go forward and protect, understand and acknowledge their rights.”
The bill passed the preliminary floor vote in the House 72-27, with bipartisan support. Among those voting against the increased funding were Flathead Valley representatives Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls; Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork; Matt Regier, R-Kalispell; Terry Falk, R-Kalispell; and Amy Regier, R-Kalispell.
HB 91 received a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee on Jan. 17 and has not yet been scheduled for a third hearing before the House. More information on the 68th Legislature can be found at leg.mt.gov.