Ohioans love public libraries, and taxpayers regularly show that love with public dollars. Gov. John Kasich and state lawmakers now have an opportunity to show their support — real, not rhetorical — for libraries. As they seek re-election, they shouldn’t miss that chance.
The state Public Library Fund was roughly $352 million last year, within a current two-year state budget of about $62 billion. The library fund is no bigger today than it was in 1996, in dollars that aren’t adjusted for inflation.
Since 2001, the state has slashed the library fund by 29 percent. During the Great Recession, annual aid cuts helped the state keep its budget balanced. But they forced big reductions in programs and staffing at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library and elsewhere.
Now that Ohio’s economy is slowly improving, the governor and Republican-controlled General Assembly propose yet another unnecessary, regressive cut in the state personal income tax this year. Before they do that, they need to do more to reverse the damage their budget-chopping policies have done to local schools, governments — and libraries.
Since Governor Kasich took office in 2011, modest annual restorations in state aid to libraries have alternated with larger cuts. In the current budget, library officials expected a 3.9 percent aid increase this year. Instead, they say, libraries are taking a cut of more than 3 percent in 2014, and will get less than they planned for in subsequent years.
Toledo’s library once got 75 percent of its operating money from the state. Today, 55 percent of its revenue comes from its local property tax. The library projects an additional loss of nearly $2.2 million from 2011 to 2018 because it no longer receives money it was promised when a state property tax was eliminated.
Ohio voters have shown their support for their local libraries in the most emphatic way possible — by approving local property tax increases to keep them afloat while state aid has shrunk. Ten years ago, just 29 percent of the state’s 251 public library systems had local levies. Today, it’s more than 70 percent. In 2012, Lucas County voters approved a five-year tax that costs the typical homeowner about $88 a year.
As the governor and legislature update the current state budget, Ohio library officials seek a slight increase in the share of general state revenues earmarked for libraries, from 1.66 percent to 2 percent. That change would net the Toledo library another $1.4 million this year, and an extra $2.8 million in 2015.
The cost of the proposed increase would amount to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the state budget. As many as 50 lawmakers say they support the libraries’ request — a solid number, but not a majority. The governor and legislative leaders need to sign on as well.
Our local public library is one of the Toledo area’s most valuable resources — not just in its educational value, but also in its contribution to economic development. Even as the state has reduced its support, public demands on the library have greatly increased.
The Toledo-Lucas County library provides $136 million a year in public services — $3 in local economic value for every dollar it spends. Nearly three-fourths of county residents have library cards, one of the highest rates in the country.
Which is the better public policy: a tax cut that would mostly benefit the wealthiest Ohioans, or enhanced investment in public institutions, such as libraries, that benefit everyone? The governor and legislators are making their choices. What they do now will help determine the choices voters make in November.