Accused of using one-time funds to support libraries in a partisan and unequal manner, Republicans in the state Assembly are striking back, saying it's Democrats who are politicizing the issue.
Both the Senate and Assembly originally restored cuts made by Governor George Pataki to libraries and library systems in the 2004 state budget. But when Republican Assemblymembers refused to join an attempt to override Pataki's veto of the funding restoration, they received discretionary money from the Governor for libraries in their own districts. Assembly minority leader Charles Nesbitt, R-Albion, denied any quid pro quo, but many critics suggest the timing indicates otherwise.
Democrats cried foul --- they wanted to fund libraries directly through the budget. Library systems directors were also miffed. With aid being parceled out by the assembly district, and to individual libraries in the form of pork-barrel checks, their systems were being left out.
When it comes to funding, the distinction between individual libraries and library systems is important: Library systems like Monroe County Library System provide technical and logistical support for programs like interlibrary loans, computers, and other services shared from library to library. MCLS lost more than $100,000, or about 5 percent of its budget, after the cuts weren't restored.
Now, in the face of criticism, Republican Assemblymembers are going on the offensive. When Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver called for public hearings around the state, including locations in Canandaigua and Rochester, to call attention to the funding situation, Republicans took their case to the news media. At press conferences before both the local hearings, members of the local Republican Assembly delegation called on Silver and the Assembly Democrats to follow their lead in funding libraries with discretionary money.
"We all know [library funding] is important," Assemblymember Bill Reilich said in a press conference outside the downtown Monroe County Office Building. "However, simply voting to override the vetoes won't fix the problem. It won't give the state the resources to pay for it." In a conciliatory gesture, he added that he agrees with what Democrats and library professionals have been saying: "No one is suggesting using discretionary funds is a long-term solution," he says.
"With what little funds we have on hand we chose to support our libraries," said Assemblymember Bob Oaks. "It is unfortunate that the speaker has chosen to politicize library funding."
But the Republicans themselves weren't wasting the opportunity to make political hay, either.
During the press conference, they blamed problems with Medicaid for the state's inability to put library funding directly into the budget, saying that's why they voted against the override in the first place.
"The Medicaid Monster is eating us all," said Assemblymember Joe Errigo. Waste within the Medicaid system is the real culprit, and that's where reform should start, the Assemblymen said.
"This is nonsense," says Sandra Galef. The Democratic Assemblymember represents a district in Westchester and Putnam Counties, and chairs the Assembly's Library Committee and was in Rochester to administer the public hearings.
"We wouldn't be having this discussion," she says, if a single Republican --- including Oaks, Reilich, or Errigo --- had crossed party lines to vote for the override.
"We shouldn't have Democratic and Republican libraries," she says. "Discretionary money is the wrong way to fund libraries." Since some politicians --- like Galef herself, or Susan John locally --- don't accept discretionary funds "there'd be an inequity there," she added. She also pointed out that using those funds rather than putting the money directly into the state budget reduces federal aid to libraries, since the federal formula is based on state aid.
That was also a theme brought by the hearing's first speaker, President of the New York Library Association Arthur Friedman. The decreased federal aid would total about half a million dollars, on top of the $4.4 million already cut by the governor, he says. Some programs, like a summer reading program that serves a million kids statewide, rely entirely on that funding.
Comparing the library system to the interstate system of the Information Age, Friedman warned the Assemblymembers present at the Rochester hearing that chronic under-funding could have disastrous effects on libraries.
"It took the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge to wake us to the dangers that were present," said Freidman. "What will it take for our political leaders to heed the call that our library systems are in danger of similar collapse?"