10 Takeaways for Libraries from the 2018 Midterms

On Tuesday’s Midterms, 46 states held elections for 6,000 state legislative seats. Thirty-six governorships were on the ballot. Nearly half of our 100 most populous cities held local elections.

On Tuesday’s Midterms, 46 states held elections for 6,000 state legislative seats. Thirty-six governorships were on the ballot. Nearly half of our 100 most populous cities held local elections.

In 33 states, thousands of county, city and school district commissions, councils and board members were on local ballots. With over 90% of library funding coming from the local and state levels, EveryLibrary is very focused on what the impact of these state and local elections are for libraries.

When you combine a hyper-divided Congress and the dysfunctional political climate in D.C. with an overall approach of the Trump Administration to diminishing or dismantling the federal government’s funding, regulatory, and rulemaking role, then add in the still-coming impact of the 2017 Tax Act, we foresee that most of the major policy and funding decisions over the next several years will be coming from states and by cities. Library leaders need to pay close attention to what is happening in their state houses, city halls, county seats, and school boards. And we need to be prepared to work on influencing that local and state level policy and funding picture for library.

EveryLibrary’s 10 Takeaways for Libraries from the 2018 Midterms
Spoiler alert: None of them are about Congress or the President

1) State Tax Caps, Rollbacks and Amendments Matter
Half of the 17 library elections EveryLibrary supported this year were because of a state tax cap. Tax caps and rollbacks – like the Headley Amendment in Michigan, TABOR and Gallagher in Colorado, Hancock in Missouri, the “2% Cap” in New York, and Prop 13 in California – force libraries (as units of local government) to pass a ballot measure or else face budget cuts through rollbacks or inflationary pressure.

Tax Caps are wildly popular among anti-tax and anti-government groups. In North Carolina, voters approved an Income Tax Cap Amendment that lowers the maximum state income tax rate from 10% to 7%. Florida narrowly avoided a massive and potentially devastating new Homestead Exemption cap when Constitutional Amendment 1 failed to reach 60%. This will be a significant loss of revenue for state government, and state aid across the board. In Indiana, voters approved Public Question 1 to require the state to adopt a balanced budget each year. On the surface, a balanced budget may sound like good government, but if a state government is Constitutionally prohibited from borrowing in a deficit, the next recession will be magnified when the state budget is automatically cut to offset declines in tax receipts. Measures like Public Question 1 are designed to shrink government – including libraries – during budget crisis. And that’s exactly when taxpayers need library resources and services the most.

2) Statewide Education Funding Measures Need Libraries at the Table
Voters in Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Colorado, Missouri, and Utah all considered education funding ballot measures on their statewide ballots this Midterm cycle.  Collectively, the impact from these state-level proposals could have been billions of dollars in new funding for education.

Here at EveryLibrary, we were proud to partner with both the Colorado Association of Libraries and the Utah Library Association as they joined their respective state coalitions to pass these funding measures (both unfortunately failed).

As far as we can tell, only one of these statewide ballot measures, Utah Question #1, specifically mentioned school libraries in its enacting language. And that was a happy accident. Progressive educational coalitions regularly take education funding measures directly to the voters in every state where that mechanism exists. We want to see more state library associations – especially state school library organizations – at the table as early as possible in order to get school library programs and certified school librarian positions into the funding proposals. That means library organizations like yours need to join existing coalitions that already include 501(c)3 non-profits, 501(c)4 political committees, and unions. Your library organization is the only stakeholder group who cares about putting school libraries into these state ballot measures, but you have to show up or it won’t happen.

3) General Obligation (GO) and Infrastructure Bonds Need to Include Libraries
While library districts and municipalities regularly put dedicated library bonds on the ballot, many states and some cities and counties will put ‘general obligation’, or GOBonds, on the ballot for infrastructure. On the Midterms, places as different as Mesa, AZ, Orem, UT, South Burlington, VT, Nueces County, TX, and Campbell, CA put multi-purpose bonds that included library projects along with police, roads, museums, or even sewers on their ballots. But many other cities, counties, and states took the political risk of putting up a ‘General Obligation Bond Election’ without including libraries. While we don’t expect libraries to be in them all of them, but if transit, streets and sanitation, parks and recreation, museums, and economic or community development are on the project list and libraries are not, we have a problem.

Library leaders need to keep their construction, upgrade, and renovation project wish-list current and be willing to lobby for including libraries in the next local or state bond package. Likewise, and to the best of our knowledge, New Mexico is the only state that has a recurring statewide voter approved GOBond for libraries (it passed handily this Midterm). Library leaders need to work with their state legislatures to prioritize libraries in communities and on campuses as a normal and necessary part of continued voter-approved infrastructure ballot measures.

4) Single Party State Governments Will be Around for a While
Aside from the unicameral Nebraska Senate, post Midterm America has exactly one state House and Senate split between Republicans and Democrats (it’s Minnesota). The remaining 48 state legislatures are either monolithically Republican or solidly Democrat in both chambers. Post Midterms, Republicans now hold the House, Senate, Governor’s Mansion in 21 states. Democrats made major gains in state control by winning seven Governorships to now hold 14. Thirteen states have divided legislative and executive powers (with Georgia undecided because its governor’s race has not been called, as of this writing). Whether or not you’re a personal fan of your current state government, single-party rule means that it is vital for leaders of all types of libraries to understand the political, economic, educational, infrastructure, development, and tax priorities of that party. It may mean adapting the way you ask for your legitimate needs so you can be understood by those in power.

5) We Need to Pay Attention to School Boards
Ballotopedia reports that there were 941 school board seats up for election in more than 2 dozen states through the 2018 Midterms. We all know that a district’s education priorities are set by their boards. Spending and staffing levels are as well. But we cannot honestly comment on how a single one of those newly elected (or re-elected) local school board members think about how school library programs and school librarians fit into the educational priorities and district budgets. It’s because we did not ask them before the election. Most library advocacy trainings tend to focus on ways to chat with them after they are elected. Here at EveryLibrary, we would like to inject school library programs and the idea of certified school librarians into the next campaign cycle. We are asking for your help to develop a set of non-partisan “model school board candidate questions” to be used in state and municipal off cycle elections in 2019. If you’d like to be a part of thinking this through, please email me. Unless we bring our own issues into a campaign, they will not be discussed.

6)  Marijuana is Already Here, and Libraries Should Benefit from the New Revenue
Michigan became the 10th state to legalize recreational marijuana when voters approved Proposal 1 this Midterm. Like casino revenue and tobacco, liquor or other “sin taxes”, Marijuana is poised to be a huge tax revenue stream. Whether the 116th Congress or the Trump DOJ catch up with the states is yet to be seen. But when voters in places as different as Utah and Missouri both legalize medical uses – often seen as a precursor to recreational use – library leaders need to work to make sure libraries are at the table and in the revenue formula when it does.  State and municipal tax policies need to include dedicated funding for libraries from this new stream. Otherwise, we will miss this new funding source the same way that gaming revenue has largely left libraries behind.

7) Local “Political Reform” Movements Come from Both Sides and Impact Libraries
As a unit of government, libraries are sometimes buffeted at the intersection of progressive political reform movements from the Left and calls for limited government from the Right. During the Midterms, libraries in historically progressive places like Oak Park, IL and Woodstock, NY were on ballots at the same time as perhaps more conservative places like Dacono, CO and Richmond Township, MI. All were faced with voter approved measures about their legal structures (results here).

The origin of each of those local ballot measures wasn’t from a national party or movement, but the local movers are influenced by perceptions and attitudes toward government in the national discourse. Libraries, as units of government, must step up their game and talk about their legitimate, taxpayer funded role in education, community development, economic growth, and livability. Both sides of the political narrative need to hear from library leaders about what a small amount of smart tax money does to create more interesting, thriving, and prosperous places. Otherwise, the national angst about where this country is headed – and how it is governed – will wash over us.

8) Local Opposition to Libraries is Real and Must be Confronted
Unlike in 2016 when national anti-tax and anti-government groups like the Americans for Prosperity came out directly against libraries on the ballot, the 2018 Midterms and Primaries saw more locally-originated opposition. But what we saw from the local anti-tax and anti-government people follows the same “M.O.” every election cycle: 1) they say that they love the library and that their opposition isn’t about “the library”, it’s about “bad taxes”; 2) they build a fiscal strawman about the budget or building project, facts be damned; 3) they then question the integrity of ‘this board’ or of ‘certain librarians’ as manager sand public servants; and, 4) they back-channel to their supporters about the ‘kind of people’ who use the library.

We know that library elections are as much about the value system of the local community as it is about the particulars of what is on the ballot. We believe that the opposition needs to be engaged early so it does not get organized, and confronted head on when it does appear. If the Midterms prove anything it is that politicians and political actors will say anything in order to score political points for themselves. Voter trust and believe librarians, and they need to hear from you directly. Even in the face of opposition.

9) Your Voter Enfranchisement and Civic Education Roles are More Important than Ever
Voters across the country said time and again during the Midterm campaign that they wanted to hear both sides of an issue, and to learn about candidates as people. Yet the parties and the campaign apparatuses are so finely tuned to create partisan screeds that it is nearly impossible to break through the noise. In 2016, PEW’s “Libraries” study very clearly showed that the majority of Americans trust – and look to – libraries as a source for civic discourse, the free exchange of ideas, no-barrier participation in democracy, and as an antidote to Fake News. Coming out of the Midterms, library leaders need to do three big things in this space: 1) deepen their programming around civic issues, civic literacy, and political engagement; 2) support partnerships focused on non-partisan voter registration activities, voter enfranchisement, ballot access and, for those who are polling places, accessibility; and, 3) re-dedicate yourselves to inclusive, participatory strategic and financial planning for the library.

As a part of government, you can lead the way in bringing diverse voices to at least one civic table. But you also have to reach out beyond your user base to talk with non-users about their tax priorities. Voter turnout for the Midterms is estimated to be about 113 million people. With only around 60% of Americans having library cards and only 48% of them visiting libraries once a year, we have a lot of non-user-voters to talk to.

10) Libraries are Non-Partisan, but Librarians Tend to be Progressives
The national voter file is both a wonderful and terrifying data set. Political parties and campaign consultants on both sides of the aisle use it to target their voter outreach to their candidate’s potential voters. It includes a tremendous amount of personal information – including demographics and consumer behaviors – of every registered voter. That data often includes “place of work” and “occupation”. So, when we query it for “library’ and “librarian” in states with partisan primaries or party declarations, fully 78% of our colleagues come back as listed on the progressive side of politics. What we know from working on nearly 100 library Election Days is that there is often a disconnect between how librarians describe library services and how local communities listen politically, socially, and civically. During the Midterms, my own personal social media bubble of 3,400 library friends on Facebook and nearly 9,000 on LinkedIn sincerely desired a Blue Wave. Voters across the country want to hear from their library leaders about the mission and vision you have for putting smart tax money to work in language that they understand even if that language is conservative in nature. Values like children growing up successful in livable, thriving, and prosperous communities are a universal value. We want to help library leaders identify, cultivate, and empower potential supporters who share those values.

One last bonus takeaway for libraries from the Midterms: the Russian situation, shady campaign practices, and partisan noise has combined to turn a lot of people off social media. And the cost of running social media ads has gotten much higher as a result. It is critically important for libraries to collect opt-in emails and signups in addition to your social media posts and ads. Your access to interested potential supporters starts and ends with emails. EveryLibrary has a head-start building that list of Americans we can reach about library funding, libraries in crisis, and libraries on the ballot. Now that the Midterms are wrapped up, we’d like to get that list of Americans to 1 million as quickly as possible. If you’d like to help make that happen, please consider donating today.