North Dakota book ban bill's estimated costs raise questions for budget writers

Bismarck's public library estimates an impact of over $334 million to review its adult and other collections to implement the bill.

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State Rep. Larry Klemin, R-Bismarck, speaks on Senate Bill 2360 and its estimated costs to members of the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, in the state Capitol. Seated at right is North Dakota State Librarian Mary Soucie, who also addressed the committee.
Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — Budget writers in the Legislature on Tuesday, April 18, dug into the estimated costs of a bill targeting sexual content in public libraries in the wake of varying estimates from the North Dakota State Library.

Bismarck's public library estimates an impact of over $334 million to review its adult and other collections to implement the bill.

The House Appropriations Committee heard the State Library's $450,000 fiscal note of state costs for Senate Bill 2360 by Sen. Keith Boehm, R-Mandan — the latest of three fiscal notes by the State Library.

A man with a mustache squints and gives a lopsided grin in a headshot photo.
Sen. Keith Boehm, R-Mandan.

Fiscal notes are state agencies' estimates for the financial impact of legislation. The bill's fiscal note and additional testimony also mention cost estimates put forth from local libraries.

The three recent fiscal notes raised questions from lawmakers. The panel did not immediately act on the bill after the half-hour overview.



The House Judiciary Committee last week exempted the State Library from the bill, which targets "explicit sexual material" in public libraries.

One lawmaker has said the exemption seems like an effort to avoid a negative recommendation for the bill.

Budget writers queried Judiciary Committee Chair Larry Klemin, R-Bismarck, about the fiscal notes and exemption of the State Library.

Rep. Brandy Pyle, R-Casselton, called the exemption "very confusing for where people are going to go and what rules do we follow."

"There's no consistency. It's not an overall good policy if we're crafting out exemptions for our largest library," Pyle said.

Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, wondered about the responsibilities involved in interlibrary loan from the State Library, under the bill's restrictions. Books are loaned to patrons of other libraries around the state through interlibrary loan.

Karla Rose Hanson
Karla Rose Hanson

"Is that book not going to fall under these guidelines? I'm trying to just really nail down who has that responsibility," Hanson said.

Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, has wondered about excluding the State Library if the bill is needed.


"It seems like this is just an effort to avoid sending this in front of Appropriations and potentially having a negative recommendation coming out of Appropriations because of the size of the fiscal note," she told the House Judiciary Committee last week.

Boehm told that committee last week that "the State Library at this point has not properly gotten their vetting process down for Miller (obscenity) test material, and we simply want to give them an opportunity to work through that and analyze their process so that they can send out material that is not sexually explicit."


The State Library's fiscal notes changed from $3.6 million to $269,000 to $450,000 amid the judiciary panel's amendments.

The first fiscal note included an estimated 109 temporary staff and a full-time professional librarian to handle a review process of the State Library's fiction collection, e-books and magazines.

State Librarian Mary Soucie said the second fiscal note changed due to new information last week from six public libraries, as well as impacts to databases to take into account.

The $450,000 is a "rough estimate" for a "more complex," age-based computer filtering system for libraries in the Online Dakota Information Network, according to Soucie. The network known as ODIN is a consortium of libraries around the state.

It's unclear how much the bill might cost the 83 public libraries throughout North Dakota. Boehm said "there is some disagreement as to those costs."

Estimated costs to public libraries are not ones they could absorb, Soucie said.


"These would be additional staff that they would need above and beyond," she told the House budget panel.

Klemin said, "The point of this is, contrary to what the fiscal note says, is that these are things that shouldn't be such a big burden on the fiscal impact because either they are already required, (public libraries) are already doing it or they are exempt from this."

$334 million?

The Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library's $334 million estimate is what Director Christine Kujawa said it would take to comply and "read, watch, and review every item in our collection and remove everything that might be construed as 'obscene' or 'sexually explicit,'" she told the Tribune.

The bill specifies "anywhere 'where minors are or may be invited as a part of the general public,' which would be the entire library," she said.

"Doing this in the time frame specified by the Legislature will require additional staff and funds to carry out this colossal task," Kujawa said in an email. "This doesn’t cover reading and reviewing every item we purchase going forward, which is roughly 20,000 titles annually. The Legislature has not provided us with an answer as to how we would fund this ongoing."

Two bills

Another bill, House Bill 1205 by House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, awaits a House vote on concurrence with Senate amendments to send it to Gov. Doug Burgum's desk. That bill would remove or relocate "explicit sexual material" from public libraries' children's collections.

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North Dakota House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson

Supporters say the two bills protect children from pornography. Opponents say the bills are censorship.

The two bills define "explicit sexual material" as "any material which, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest of minors; is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community in North Dakota as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors; and taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors."


Boehm's bill would criminalize with a misdemeanor charge the willful display of "explicit sexual material that is harmful to minors" at "newsstands or any other business establishment frequented by minors, or where minors are or may be invited as a part of the general public."

Boehm's bill would add public libraries and public school libraries to the latter places.

Employees of school districts, state agencies and public libraries could face a misdemeanor charge for willfully exposing "explicit sexual material" to a minor.

A "public library for limited access for educational research purposes carried on at such an institution by adults only" is exempt from criminal liability under the bill.

Boehm's bill also would require public libraries and public school libraries to submit an annual report to lawmakers about "provider compliance with technology protection measures" the bill would require for digital or online library database resources for K-12 students, to prevent viewing of "explicit sexual material."

Boehm has cited research done by his daughter-in-law, her sister and other people who he said uncovered "sexually explicit content" in 40 libraries statewide.

He told The Bismarck Tribune the group curated 12 books by citing the American Library Association finding of the titles as the most challenged due to "sexually explicit graphics and/or language, profanity, violence, and depictions of child abuse."

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