Push for tax hikes to fund public libraries face mixed results this year in Missouri

With libraries in the political cross hairs in Missouri for much of the last year, local voters headed to the polls this week in two counties to weigh increased funding

By: - August 11, 2023 8:00 am

State lawmakers attempted to remove state funding of libraries earlier this year, and Secretary of State John "Jay" Ashcroft established a new rule that restricts what books those under 18 can check out (Getty Images).

Ballot measures seeking to fund local libraries had mixed results Tuesday, with Cole County voters striking down a 15-cent tax increase and Taney County residents narrowly approving an 18-cent levy to create a public library.

The votes come at a precarious time for Missouri’s libraries, as they have increasingly been pulled into the political scrum over culture-war topics like drag shows and transgender youth as legislators attempt to pull “obscene” materials from library shelves.

State lawmakers attempted to remove state funding of libraries earlier this year, and Secretary of State John “Jay” Ashcroft established a new rule that restricts what books those under 18 can check out.

The Missouri Library Association, responding to Ashcroft’s rule, said in a tweet that librarians follow ethical standards when selecting books.

We don’t buy porn for kids. We buy some books — say — that feature same-sex parents,” the organization wrote. “That’s not porn. That’s real life for some people.”

In Taney County, home to Branson, backers of the tax levy tried to allay any potential concerns by stating flatly that there would not be “drag queen story hours” or “liberal book” purchases.

It squeaked out a win by a single percentage point.

In Cole County, where the library tax levy was defeated by over 26 percentage points, the culture war topics that have bedeviled libraries this year weren’t the focus of the opposition.

Critics didn’t go on the offensive about what was on library shelves, but rather panned the hit to taxpayer’s pocketbooks.

“The cost of living has gone way up, and a lot of people are struggling,” Tom Rackers, chairman of Concerned Citizens of Cole County, told The Independent. “It’s just not the time to have frivolous taxes.”

Rackers’ group sent mailers throughout Cole County and spread infographics on social media to oppose the tax levy. But he said the opposition had nothing to do with the library itself.

“We don’t have any problem with the library,” Rackers said. “I don’t think there’s anyone that doesn’t support the library.”

Cole County

A polling place in Jefferson City has limited traffic late morning Tuesday (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

Rackers said Concerned Citizens of Cole County, composed largely of conservatives, had been meeting for two and a half years and “recruiting” city council candidates and school board members. 

He said any advocacy for local candidates came in the form of personal donations, not from the PAC.

The group’s efforts were relatively low key until the library initiative, Rackers said, and it didn’t spend enough money to require registering as a political action committee until the days leading up to the vote.

A postcard, mailed to voters from the committee, warned voters of a “75% tax increase.” 

“The library proposition will nearly double your taxes,” the mailer proclaims to voters.

The 75% increase would only apply to the library’s portion of property taxes, of which is small. Overall property taxes would increase by an average of 2.5%, according to estimates from the library.

Claudia Young, director of the Missouri River Regional Library, believes the postcard and graphics on social media impacted voters’ decisions.

“They were purposely trying to confuse people into thinking that the overall property tax bill was going up 75%,” she said.

Nearly 17% of Cole County’s voters weighed in on the issue, and over 63% decided not to approve the levy. Young did not anticipate the outcome and said the library will have to consider new options to expand the building.

“The dream hasn’t died,” she said. “It’s just kind of on pause right now.”

Young doesn’t think questions about progressive literature impacted the vote.

“I think it has everything to do with the fact that our community is very tax intolerant,” she said.

The library unveiled its campaign 16 weeks ago, announcing plans staff had started in 2017. They worked with a financial analyst to propose the 15-cent increase and decided to not sunset the tax, as they anticipated needing long-term funding, Young said.

But the unending nature of the proposal worried Concerned Citizens of Cole County. Rackers said he didn’t like approving a tax in perpetuity and thought the scale of the renovations was too large.

His group emerged in the public eye in late July when Jefferson City Third Ward Councilman Scott Spencer posted a graphic from the group on social media website Nextdoor.

It said Rachel Reagan-Purschke, a lawyer outside of the county, was the group’s treasurer. She is the treasurer of four other political action committees, but is not registered as Concerned Citizens’ treasurer.

The group’s treasurer is Edith Vogel, a Jefferson City resident who sued the city last year when it removed Confederate-related pavers from a city park.

Spencer said it was emailed to him from an unknown sender and that he posted it because he doesn’t believe it is the right time for a tax increase.

“I’m not for any increase in property taxes or sales taxes at this time,” he said.

He deleted the original graphic, later posting a similar picture that Concerned Citizens of Cole County shared on its Facebook page. Both Nextdoor posts garnered debate in the comments before Spencer deleted them.

“They’ve been up and there’s been plenty of discussion on it, so I just delete them,” he said. “I delete them after a few days like I always do with other issues that I post.”

Taney County

Taney County will turn a local nonprofit library into a public resource with the tax approved by voters. The county does not have a public library — a rarity in Missouri.

The Taneyhills Library, in campaign literature, said it was heading toward closure at the end of the year unless it could access public funds.

The measure to fund Taneyhills Library with an 18-cent levy passed by 46 votes with 15% of Taney County voters heading to the polls. Other initiatives were on the ballot, like a local tax on marijuana sales.

The campaign’s frequently-asked-questions page sought to allay fears from conservative voters by stating flatly that the library will not hold “drag queen story hour,” and there will be no requirement to purchase “liberal books.”

Tuesday evening, as votes were being tallied, Branson’s Board of Aldermen finalized restrictions on drag performances that will limit them to a small portion of the city. Drag performances will have to obtain a special permit, treating them like adult entertainment.

“If any citizen has a concern about any book or other media, there is already a process in place to communicate and address those concerns at the Taneyhills Library,” the website says. “We expect that process to continue and improve with a public library operation.”

Most other questions addressed operational concerns and funding.

State lawmakers

The Missouri House Budget Committee working through the revisions proposed by Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, to the fiscal 2024 state budget (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

The legislative session that adjourned in May renewed tension between librarians and lawmakers that began in 2022 when the General Assembly passed a bill that would charge school librarians for providing “explicit sexual material” to students. In February, the ACLU of Missouri sued on behalf of librarians, saying the law caused schools to remove “hundreds of titles from library shelves.”

In retaliation, the Missouri’s House budget committee proposed a cut to state funding of public libraries this year. The Senate Appropriations Committee restored libraries’ $4.5 million state funding.

Bills filed this legislative session included proposals in the House and Senate to cut state funding for libraries that provide age-inappropriate material to minors. The bills were referred to committee but not heard, possibly because they mirrored a rule by the Secretary of State proposed in October.

The rule, now in effect, requires parental permission for children and teens to check out books. Ashcroft, who is running for governor, said in a press release the rule is intended to protect children.

The Missouri Library Association said in a statement that the rule has created “mass confusion.”

Many Missouri libraries and library employees have reached out asking for guidance, looking for templates, and wondering what materials may need to be censored, but there has been no clarification by the Secretary of State, or his office,” it says. “There is no information on what material, display, or program may ‘cross the line,’ or if the line will simply be drawn by the most vocal and restrictive community members.”

The organization said many libraries are considering suspending the cards for members under 18 in order to require parents to “reaffirm their child’s right to have a library card.”


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Annelise Hanshaw
Annelise Hanshaw

Annelise Hanshaw writes about education — a beat she has covered on both the West and East Coast while working for daily newspapers in Santa Barbara, California, and Greenwich, Connecticut. A born-and-raised Missourian, she is proud to be back in her home state.