What were those library tech grants for?

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

The $3.5 million in ARPA funds cut from the second Commission for Libraries budget was set aside to pay for telehealth services at rural libraries. The state started two pilot programs in Clearwater County libraries last year. Melissa Davlin/Idaho Reports

After contentious debates over whether libraries are allowing children to access obscene materials, it’s easy to gloss over the $3.5 million in technology grants that the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee removed from the Commission for Libraries budget in an attempt to get the bill through the House.

But what would those grants have paid for? 

Access to telehealth services for patrons in rural libraries, said Alex Adams, administrator for the Division of Financial Management, an hour after the House voted down another Commission for Libraries Budget on Friday evening.

“We put $3.5 million in the budget from the ARPA Capital Projects fund, and that has a very narrow use federally,” Adams said. 

One of those narrow uses in the Capital Projects fund is increasing access to distance health and learning. Last year, the state started a pilot project at libraries in Weippe and Orofino to provide private rooms and broadband for community members to attend telehealth appointments. 

The pilot project was well-received, Adams said, especially by seniors who needed access to healthcare, but couldn’t easily make it to Lewiston or Spokane for appointments.

“The concept was to expand it to additional libraries throughout the state,” Adams said. “Obviously, the libraries budget has hit a bunch of turbulence.”

After a House GOP caucus, the joint budget committee met again at 8:30 pm Friday to put out another budget without those ARPA-funded telehealth grants. An effort by Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking to re-insert them into the bill failed.

Before adjourning for the session, the Legislature must pass a budget for the commission. Friday afternoon’s no-votes in the House included some who objected to removing the ARPA funds, and others who thought the budget didn’t cut enough.

The House killed the second budget an hour after voting to create a working group to examine whether libraries are distributing obscene material to minors — a concern that resulted in them tanking the original budget on Thursday.

Idaho has long struggled with rural healthcare access. Between 2018 and 2020, rural Idaho lost 1,700 nurses, either to retirement, other careers, or jobs in urban centers, according to the Idaho Capital Sun. A bill to create incentives for nurses to take rural jobs failed in the Senate in February. 

Last week, Idaho Reports talked to retiring House Health and Welfare Chairman Rep. Fred Wood about Idaho’s rural healthcare shortage and WWAMI participation. Watch the interview here. 

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