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NM lawmakers pass on full funding for rural libraries

The children’s section of the Hatch Public Library is seen in late January 2024. The library is located on the outskirts of the northern Doña Ana County village.
Diana Alba Soular/ Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative
The children’s section of the Hatch Public Library is seen in late January 2024. The library is located on the outskirts of the northern Doña Ana County village.

LAS CRUCES – Proponents of rural public libraries were seeking at least $27 million from New Mexico lawmakers in the legislative session that ended in mid-February. It would’ve fully funded a trust to help keep libraries across the state’s vast expanses operating indefinitely.

But state legislators allocated only a fraction of the amount – $2.5 million – this year.

The larger sum would have fully vested the trust, known as the New Mexico Rural Libraries Endowment, which is roughly halfway funded at the moment.

Lisa Neal is director of the Hatch Public Library, one of 55 small libraries statewide benefiting from the partially funded endowment. She said she didn’t want to get her hopes too high about the possibility of lawmakers funding the measure fully in 2024.

 Still, she said, of the outcome: “I was disappointed.”

Proposal falls flat

Libraries in Gila, Lordsburg, Columbus, Bayard, Cloudcroft, Eunice and Magdalena are among others that benefit from the state-run endowment. As the permanent rural library fund grows, yearly payments to these facilities will increase. Small libraries received about $2,600 apiece last fall, an amount that, based upon recent estimates, is expected to grow to about $15,600 in the 2024 calendar year, according to the New Mexico Rural Library Initiative. But a fully funded endowment could yield about $45,000 apiece for each rural library, supporters say.

State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, a proponent of the endowment, had put forward a dedicated bill to fund rural libraries to the tune of $30 million, an amount that would have accommodated a few new community libraries that want to join the initiative. But the proposal didn’t gain traction in the month-long legislative session.

“It had one hearing and went to Finance, and it didn't get past (the) Senate Finance (Committee),” he said.

During a session, bills must wind their way through a series of legislative committees in order to be voted upon by either the House or the Senate.

Asked why he thinks the state budget passed by the Legislature didn’t include a larger amount for rural libraries, Ortiz y Pino said it boils down to a lack of support from lawmakers in a powerful bipartisan committee before the session even started in mid-January.

“The decisions all get made in the Legislative Finance Committee before the session,” he said of the state budget. “Getting anything more out of them, once the session starts, is incredibly difficult. They’ve made a decision: ‘This is all we’re going to spend. No matter how good the idea is, no matter how bad the need is, we’re just not going to go beyond that.’”

That’s despite the state maintaining financial reserves equivalent to about one year’s budget, Ortiz y Pino said.

The bipartisan panel of both representatives and senators meets periodically throughout the calendar year in different communities throughout the state. Its next meeting, for instance, is April 17-18 in Santa Fe.

An initial budget proposal from the LFC going into the session didn’t include any new funding for rural libraries, despite the Legislature having a bumper budget of nearly $10.2 billion to allocate. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had proposed $10 million for the rural library fund this year. But a House panel added just $2.5 million – the amount that made it into the final budget.

Rural NM faces higher poverty

Small towns and cities across far-flung regions of New Mexico often face high poverty and struggle to pay for staffing, building upgrades and materials for their libraries. But these small institutions have taken on a variety of roles beyond lending books and materials, including kids’ programming, digital literacy training and broadband access, printing and copying services, and social services.

The poverty rate in New Mexico’s rural areas was just over 21% in 2021, compared to about 16 percent in the state’s urban areas, according to the Rural Health Information Hub.

Ortiz y Pino said supporting small libraries is a key way to foster community vitality in rural places struggling with issues of high poverty, a lack of jobs and population loss.

“The dilemma is that most of our rural communities are turning into ghost towns,” he said. “For the young people growing up, there is no reason to stay.”

The Columbus Village Library serves a nearly 1,500-person town on the U.S.-Mexico border in southern Luna County. Library Director Maria Constantine said it’s tough for the village to fund the library in addition to other necessary services for residents. The statewide permanent fund will help by creating a predictable income stream that could be used for a variety of the facility’s needs, like installing a long-awaited water fountain.

“One of the advantages of this funding is I can use it for capital improvements,” she said. “I can do those repairs on the building that are going to take a couple thousand dollars. We still need to keep the lights on and fix the hole in the roof. Otherwise, I have to take a big cut out of other parts of my budget.”

The Columbus library and others across the state do get small grants, apart from the permanent library fund, from the state. But a limitation on that money is that it can’t be spent on building improvements.

Constantine said about 1,300 residents and travelers per month visit the Columbus library. Quite a few international visitors, including those touring the nearby Pancho Villa State Park, use the library, as well. It’s especially valued as an access point for high-speed internet in a remote region lacking broadband infrastructure.

“We’re a community resource center,” she said. “We do a lot of social services type work. People come to us because they're looking for food. They're looking for information about how to pay a bill online. A lot of times, people are confused when they look things up on the internet. They'd rather hear somebody explain it to them.”

The library, located in a building that used to be a bar, hosts a collection of about 10,000 items. Through a statewide network, library card holders also can access digital books and materials.

Constantine said it was disappointing that lawmakers didn’t completely fund the rural libraries initiative this year. But, she said, maybe they’ll support it in next year’s session.

“I hope that they will take the step of finally fully funding it because once they do, they won't have to worry about it anymore,” she said.

Neal, the director of the Hatch library, said the $15,000-plus that small libraries will receive from the endowment this year will be boon. But when the measure is fully funded, it will be even more significant to the village’s library.

“I can invest in more bilingual books,” she said. “I can invest in more supplies to do STEM projects – science, technology, engineering and math. I can put that money to use exactly where it needs to be for our community.”

Diana Alba Soular/ Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative
The Hatch Public Library is one of 55 rural libraries benefiting from an endowment that creates a perpetual funding source for these small institutions statewide. State lawmakers approved only a fraction of the $27 million library proponents were seeking in the 2024 regular legislative session that ended in mid-February.

‘All we can do is keep trying’

Neal said Hatch often feels overlooked. The village is in Southern New Mexico, far from the state capital in Santa Fe, and it can be overshadowed by the much larger city of Las Cruces to the south. She hopes more awareness will build support for the library measure in the state capital.

“As the word gets out, and as more people understand how integral libraries are to the community, and as we talk to the representatives, hopefully that will help,” she said.

Given the scale of money available this year to the state, Ortiz y Pino said he doesn’t understand why the full library funding wasn’t broadly supported by the Legislature.

“It just doesn't make any sense for us to do what we’re doing,” he said. “The $30 million we needed to finish up that fund this year was like a rounding error in the budget.”

Ortiz y Pino is retiring from the Legislature after this year – along with a number of other senators. Plus, the November election will change up the body’s makeup. Even so, he said he’ll continue to advocate for the measure because he sees the value of libraries to rural communities.

“All we can do is just keep trying,” he said. “Eventually, we’ll get there, but it would have been so easy for them to write the check this year. Because we had it (the money). We still have it. It’s sitting right there.”

Diana Alba Soular is the project manager and editor for the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, covering COVID-19 and pandemic recovery from a solutions-reporting lens. For more information visit, SouthNMnews.org or SurNMnoticias.org.



Communities benefiting from the New Mexico Rural Libraries Endowment


* indicates location in Southern New Mexico

Acoma Learning Center, 17a Knots Landing Road, Pueblo of Acoma (Cibola County)

Albert W. Thompson Memorial Library, 17 Chestnut St., Clayton (Union County)

*Bayard Public Library, 1112 Central Ave., Bayard (Grant County)

*Capitan Public Library Central Library, 101 E 2nd St., Capitan (Lincoln County)

*The Carrizozo Community Public Library and Archive, 406 Central Ave., Carrizozo (Lincoln County)

*Columbus Village Library, 112 W. Broadway, Columbus (Luna County)

*Corona Public Library, 481 Corona Main St., Corona (Lincoln County)

Cuba Public Library, 13 East Cordova Ave., Cuba (Sandoval County)

David F. Cargo El Valle De Anton Chico Library, State Highway 386 West Main St, La Loma (Guadalupe County)

David F. Cargo Library, 11 Los Pueblos Road, Villanueva (San Miguel County)

Eagle Nest Public Library, 74 N. Tomboy Drive, Eagle Nest (Colfax County)

Eleanor Dagett Memorial Library, 299 4th St., Chama (Rio Arriba County)

El Pueblo de Abiquiú Library & Cultural Center, 29 Co Road 187, Abiquiu (Rio Arriba County)

El Rito Public Library Central Library, Co Road 215, El Rito (Rio Arriba)

Embudo Valley Library, 217A NM-75, Dixon (Rio Arriba)

Estancia Public Library, 600 South Tenth St., Estancia (Torrance County)

*Eunice Public Library, 1003 Ave. N, Eunice (Lea County)

Fred Macaron Library, 600 Colbert Ave., Springer (Colfax County)

*Fort Sumner Public Library, 235 W. Sumner Ave., Fort Sumner (De Baca County)

*Gila Valley Library, 411 NM-211, Gila (Grant County)

*Glenwood Community Library, 14 Menges Lane, Glenwood (Catron County)

*Hatch Public Library, 530 E. Hall, Hatch (Doña Ana County)

Irene S. Sweetkind Public Library, 6515 Hoochaneesta Blvd., Cochiti Lake (Sandoval County)

Jemez Springs Public Library, 030 Jemez Plaza, Hwy. 4, Jemez Springs (Sandoval County)

Jicarilla Library, 165 Hawks Dr., Dulce (Rio Arriba County)

*Lordsburg-Hidalgo Library, 208 E. 3rd St., Lordsburg (Hidalgo County)

*Magdalena Public Library, 108 N. Main St, Magdalena (Socorro County)

*Michael Nivison Public Library, 90 Swallow Place, Cloudcroft (Otero County)

Moise Memorial Library, 208 5th St., Santa Rosa (Guadalupe County)

Moriarty Community Library, 202 South Broadway, Moriarty (Torrance County)

Mountainair Public Library, 110 N. Roosevelt Ave., Mountainair (Torrance County)

Placitas Community Library, 453 NM-165, Placitas (Sandoval County)

Pueblo de Cochiti Library, Cochiti Pueblo (Sandoval County)

Pueblo of Pojoaque Public Library, 101 Lightning Loop, Pueblo of Pojoaque (Santa Fe County)

Pueblo of San Ildefonso Library, 02 Tunyo Po, Pueblo of San Ildefonso (Santa Fe County)

Pòe Tsáwä Community Library, 239 NM-74, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (Rio Arriba County)

Questa Public Library, 6 1/2 Municipal Park Road, Questa (Taos County)

Red River Public Library, 702 E. Main St., Red River (Taos County)

*Reserve Public Library, 15 Jake Scott St, Reserve (Catron County)

*Rio Abajo Community Library, Calle De Centro S, La Joya (Socorro County)

Sandia Pueblo Learning Resource Center, 238 Sandia Day School Road, Sandia Pueblo (Sandoval County)

Santa Ana Pueblo Community Library, 2 Dove Road, Santa Ana Pueblo (Sandoval County)

Santa Clara Pueblo Community Library, 578 Kee Street, Santa Clara Pueblo (Rio Arriba County)

Santo Domingo Pueblo Library, 134 Tesuque St., Santo Domingo Pueblo (Sandoval County)

The Shuter Library of Angel Fire, 11 South Angel Fire Road, Angel Fire (Colfax County)

Talpa Community Center, NM-518, Ranchos De Taos (Taos County)

*Tatum Community Library, 323 E. Broadway St., Tatum (Lea County)

Taytsugeh Oweengeh Library, Tesuque Pueblo (Santa Fe County)

Torreon Community Library, Torreon Star Lake Chapter (McKinley County)

Truchas Community Library, 60 Co Road 75, Truchas (Rio Arriba County)

*Tularosa Public Library, 515 Fresno St., Tularosa (Otero County)

Vallecitos Community Center and Library, 13 Co Road 251, Vallecitos (Rio Arriba County)

Vista Grande Public Library, 14 Avenida Torreon, El Dorado at Santa Fe (Santa Fe County)

*Woolworth Community Library, 100 E. Utah St., Jal (Lea County)

Zia Enrichment Library, 162 Zia Blvd., Zia Pueblo (Rio Arriba County)

Source: New Mexico Rural Library Initiative

Diana Alba Soular is the project manager and editor for the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, covering COVID-19 and pandemic recovery from a solutions-reporting lens.