The anti-donation clause was put in the New Mexico Constitution at statehood in 1912. It states that government money can’t be given to private entities for capital expenses.

It was put in place after decades of scandals in which government bonds were issued to railroads that promised stations to municipalities. During horse and buggy days, railroad connections provided huge economic benefits. Railroads often broke their promises, leaving states and municipalities in debt while enriching the “robber barons.”

The clause includes an exemption for the aid of the “sick and indigent.” This exemption is interpreted to allow state money to be appropriated for construction of privately owned health facilities.

The 1994 Local Economic Development Act constitutional amendment allows an exemption for certain economic development activities. It permits money, land, buildings and infrastructure to be given to private entities to help create job opportunities. Unfortunately, lawmakers are interpreting the anti-donation clause to mean they can’t provide capital funds to 501(c)(3) public libraries. I believe they are wrong.

Libraries in New Mexico are mostly established by local governments. In unincorporated towns, 501(c)(3) nonprofit status is usually the only option. There are about 15 nonprofit public libraries throughout the state. Grants will soon be available via the New Mexico Rural Library Endowment to establish new libraries in small towns, so there will be more.

In New Mexico, “indigent” is defined as anyone eligible for public assistance such as Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Every nonprofit public library serves indigent people. All provide crucial free internet. Many have early childhood and after-school programs, connect sick people with medical services through the internet, help people access benefits and sign up for insurance.

Nonprofit public libraries are also tied to local economic development. Besides helping people find jobs through the internet, supporting needs of local businesses, assisting with résumé writing and providing STEM education, some run local businesses to help support the library’s mission. Capitan Public Library, for example, runs a thrift shop. If operators could secure funds, they would buy the adjacent abandoned building and open a coffee shop.

David F. Cargo Public Library in Villanueva provides the only free internet in a 75-mile radius, but the library closes on cold days because of a sketchy heating system. The building also needs a new roof. Interpretation of the anti-donation clause prohibits the library from receiving government help. Similar stories are common throughout the state.

Ironically, the Local Economic Development Act exemption allowed taxpayers to give $10 million each to Netflix and Facebook and significant funding to Raytheon, Google, FedEx and others, negating its original purpose. The anti-donation clause wasn’t intended to block funding for vital, vulnerable rural public libraries serving the public interest. Unfortunately, that’s the result.

Democratic state Rep. Susan Herrera asked the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on this during the 2019 legislative session. Five affected libraries met with the Attorney General’s Office in May. The 2020 session is nearly here. We trust the attorney general will render an opinion soon so another session won’t happen with this misguided interpretation in place.

Shel Neymark lives in Embudo.

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