Way back in January, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an opinion saying that it was unconstitutional for the state to make grants to private nonprofit organizations. Cuccinelli’s opinion was clear as could be: the practice wasn’t allowed because the constitution clearly bans it. Case closed, right?
Nope. Little did I know that when I asked Del. John O’Bannon to put in the request for the AG’s opinion that the issue would still be roiling the political months later.
That’s because the folks most offended by the AG’s opinion appear to be Virginia’s legislative spenders – the grandees on the General Assembly’s appropriations committees, who really, really dislike the idea of having someone take away a favored perk:
State Sen. R. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania, accused Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli today of initiating “a political fishing expedition” over a constitutional question that has sowed uncertainty in the state bureaucracy.
Houck was joined by other senators, Republicans as well as Democrats, on the Senate Finance Committee in questioning an Attorney General’s opinion that found charitable contributions by the state to be in violation of the Virginia Constitution.
Although the opinion was sought by Del. John M. O’Bannnon III, R-Henrico, Houck said it furthered Cuccinelli’s anti-earmark political agenda.
This was the second General Assembly committee this week to look into the opinion. The House Appropriations Committee questioned it Monday.
At a time of fiscal restraint, such an opinion was not needed, when the legislature is scrambling to find money to help needy groups, Houck said.
Pay no attention to what Virginia’s constitution says — this is all an anti-earmark witch hunt or, if you don’t buy that one, it’s really unnecessary at this time because the state is broke.
I told a reporter earlier in the week that the timing for this ruling couldn’t have been better. There’s an AG in office who takes the constitution’s written word seriously plus, with the state being broke, it made perfect sense to question whether grants like these fit within the state’s core responsibilities.
But Mr. Houck’s snit is only the public face of the legislative disgust with Cuccinelli’s opinion. I understand that Del. O’Bannon was quietly urged to withdraw his request for an AG’s opinion. That he refused to do so speaks to his courage. I also understand that this very question has been asked in the past, but an opinion has never been issued. Why? One can only assume that what a legislator asked a previous AG’s office for was an informal opinion. That means the response would not be printed, and made official, unless the legislator agreed to make it so. Given the constitution’s clear language, it can be no mystery what even an informal, unpublished, would have said: the grants were not permitted.
So there has been a long-standing conspiracy of silence on this matter up until this January, when a Delegate who wanted to do the right thing and an Attorney General who takes the constitution seriously took action.
Good for them. An unconstitutional practice was ended. A thorough review of state funding of nonprofits was instituted. In the end, both Virginia’s nonprofit community and its taxpayers will benefit.
The only losers are those members of the state’s political class, who have had one of their favorite toys taken away.
But this story may reach even deeper than just the state’s spending habits. Greg Letiecq is pushing for an AG opinion on whether local governments can hand out money to private charities – in effect, exercising a power that the state does not have.
That will be one to watch.