Bill that would force library employees to get background checks passes Utah House committee

The bill would make library systems set policies for employees’ background checks, or lose state funding.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The periodical section of the Granite Library on 3300 South, South Salt Lake, in June 2022. The Utah House Education Committee passed a bill that would require public library systems to require criminal background checks for their employees, or risk losing state funding. Many systems in Utah already have policies to require such checks.

A bill that would require public library employees across Utah to get criminal background checks, or their libraries could lose state funding, has passed its first legislative hurdle.

House Bill 284, introduced by Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, would “prohibit a public library from receiving state funds unless the library implements a policy providing for criminal background checks of employees.”

After a brief discussion Thursday morning, the House Education Committee unanimously voted to move the bill forward.

One committee member, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, stressed the need for background checks for library employees. “Parents think they’re dropping [their children] off in a safe place,” she said.

Chaundra Johnson, the state librarian and director of the Utah State Library, said many library systems in Utah already have background-check policies in place. The bill, she said, would spur “those libraries who don’t have a policy.”

Dan Johnson, a retired school principal, introduced a version of this bill in 2022, but it never left committee. Since then, Johnson told The Tribune, he met with librarians statewide to rewrite the bill to a point where they might support it.

One significant change, Johnson said, is that the bill has a fiscal note attached, which estimates it would cost the state’s Department of Public Safety $15,000 a year to pay for background checks for library employees in smaller, rural communities. Without a fiscal note last year, the cost would have been borne by the local libraries or their employees.

“It’s difficult for some of those folks to get a background check,” Johnson said. “They have to drive 30 or 50 miles or more to go get one.”

The bill specifies that Utah’s smallest counties, designated fifth- and sixth-class by population, be given the financial assistance for paying for background checks. The sixth-class counties in Utah are Daggett, Piute, Wayne and Rich; the fifth-class counties are Garfield, Beaver, Kane, Grand and Emery.

Another committee member, Rep. Joseph Elison, R-Toquerville, asked whether more populous rural counties — he mentioned San Juan County specifically — might also be made eligible for financial assistance, because of the long distances needed to travel in those counties. Johnson told Elison he would be happy to consider expanding the assistance to the state’s fourth-class counties (Juab, Morgan, Millard, San Juan, Duchesne, Carbon, Sevier, Sanpete, Wasatch and Uintah), but the bill would need another fiscal note.

Rebekah Cummings, the advocacy co-chair for the Utah Library Association and chair of the Utah State Library Board, told The Tribune that last year’s version was “problematic,” and she gives Johnson credit for rewriting it.

“From a large library perspective, you might look at those costs and say, ‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ but when you’re running a small rural library, literally every dollar counts,” Cummings said.

Johnson said that when he was in education, “Everybody I worked with had to go through a background check to make sure they didn’t have a background [with] liability issues.” It would be a “terrible spot” to be in, he said, if something happened to a child because a library employee with a “terrible background” — such as a sex offender — was hired.

“Libraries have always been a very safe place for people to go,” Cummings said. “We really pride ourselves in being one of the spaces where people can come with their families. ... I’m in no way opposed to putting policies in place to ensure that [libraries] stay safe.”

The bill goes next to the full House for consideration. If both chambers approve the bill and it’s signed by Gov. Spencer Cox, the background check rule would go into effect on July 1, 2024.