Iowa Republican’s bill would defund public libraries, eliminate local library boards

Sen. Jesse Green (R-Iowa)

By Ty Rushing

February 5, 2024

Sen. Jesse Green (R-Boone) introduced a bill last week that many library advocates say could lead to the end game for public libraries in Iowa.

SSB 3131 would change how cities and counties fund public libraries by changing the language in Iowa Code from “shall” to “may,” which would allow those entities to opt out of funding libraries entirely through the current library levy system.

Additionally, Green’s bill would give cities more power over independent library boards and libraries by allowing city councils to decide who should be placed on the board or if such a board should even exist.

Under current law, mayors appoint library board members and city councils have to approve those selections, but voters still have the ultimate say on whether to alter or dismantle library boards in their communities.

In Iowa, library boards direct and control all affairs of a library, have the power to hire and fire library directors, determine staff salaries, authorize purchases, and determine how to spend all funds allocated to libraries.

Lastly, Green’s bill would require library boards to turn over all property to the city by July 1, 2025.

Green has been at the forefront of Iowa’s book-banning efforts over the last few years. His latest bill is a more roundabout way of continuing that path, especially in light of recent failures to censor public libraries even in Iowa’s most conservative communities.

Last fall, Pella voters narrowly defeated a referendum effort to give the city council control of the library. The referendum effort was led by some residents who were upset that the library board refused to remove “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe from shelves.

In an open letter, the Iowa Library Association said SSB 3131 could undermine the autonomy of more than 500 public library boards across Iowa as well as “vital funding that sustains our libraries and their invaluable services.”

“Such a drastic measure threatens the operational and financial sustainability of communities and their libraries,” the board stated. “Library operations and services heavily rely on levies as well as volunteer Iowans appointed by elected bodies to represent, serve, and support the mission of their library. Libraries are cornerstones of education, providing free access to information, technology, and cultural enrichment.”

The first Iowa Senate subcommittee on the bill was scheduled for Monday but was canceled. However, the public comments section for the bill generated 31 pages of responses, most of which opposed the legislation.

One of the few supportive comments came from Courtney Collier, a Waukee parent who has been trying to get books banned in the Waukee School District since 2021. Collier’s comments delved into anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and conspiracy theories about the American Library Association being a “Marxist organization.”

The arguments against the bill came from a range of citizens, including library professionals from across Iowa.

Robert Fiedler, director of Muscatine’s Musser Public Library, said he was disheartened by the bill’s introduction.

“Defunding libraries, removing the will of the voter to determine how their libraries are governed, and essentially encouraging the dissolution of library boards is an insult to the residents of Iowa,” he wrote. “Libraries are many things to many people, but most importantly they are institutions governed by the very people that use them.”

Fiedler said this bill is an overreach and a “blatant example” of how out of touch some Iowa politicians are with their constituents.

“Extremism has no place in Iowa and the majority of the good people in our great state simply want commonsense, fair legislation that represents our views, not the out-of-touch, selfish machinations of a select few,” he said. “Iowans deserve better.”

Jodi O’Donnell of Ames questioned the motivation behind this and how it was actually helping Iowans.

“These bills are purely cultural and do absolutely nothing to improve Iowans’ quality of life and take precious resources and time away from actually working to solve the many real problems in the state such as child care, water quality, rural healthcare, maternal care, strengthening our public education system, and so much more,” she said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Rep. Jesse Green’s name. We regret the error.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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