There have been several of us over the years who saw annual appropriations by the General Assembly to charitable non-state entities as a flagrant violation of the Constitution of Virginia. Today Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli confirms that the longstanding practice is indeed against the law. The difference between my occasional whining and today’s immediate halt to the practice is the involvement of long-time blogger Norm Leahy, who pens at Tertium Quids, instead of me. He got it done, while I ineffectually griped.
Article 4, Section 16, of The Virginia Constitution says the following on the subject:
The General Assembly shall not make any appropriation of public funds, personal property, or real estate to any church or sectarian society, or any association or institution of any kind whatever which is entirely or partly, directly or indirectly, controlled by any church or sectarian society. Nor shall the General Assembly make any like appropriation to any charitable institution which is not owned or controlled by the Commonwealth; the General Assembly may, however, make appropriations to nonsectarian institutions for the reform of youthful criminals and may also authorize counties, cities, or towns to make such appropriations to any charitable institution or association.
So did the founders hate charities or something? If you haven’t thought through the issue that’s a pretty easy conclusion to stumble over, although few ever engage in this rather worthwhile philosophical exercise. Think about what the act of charity is, and how we at least should engage in it. That picture doesn’t usually involve stealing from one person to deliver it to another making one person a victim, another a thief, and the third person someone in possession of stolen property. That’s what forcibly taxing someone in order to redistribute it to someone else really is, even if the end recipient of this extortion is an ostensibly worthy cause. The purpose of taxation is to fund necessary and limited government operations. It is not to have the state pick and choose what noble group needs your money more than you do.
But every year, members of both parties blindly disregarded the plain language of the Constitution and handed your tax dollars out to all sorts of groups. Chuck Colgan — a master at redistributive beneficence who called this “bringing home the bacon” — was one of the top spenders of your taxpayer dollars to be directed to non-state entities for many years, as was just about every other member of the General Assembly. Notable and principled exceptions to this were Michele McQuigg and Jay O’Brien.
Some people would loudly complain, but given how the federal government lavishes taxpayer dollars on such worthy causes as “Piss Christ”, ACORN, and National Public Radio, seeing an earmark of $100K for the Manassas Museum seems a pittance so minor it’s hardly worth noticing. Besides, a lot of folks like the museum (as do I) and don’t mind if we’re seizing money from people at the threat of putting them in jail in order to fund an extra staff position or two. To many it just seems so relatively minor, and harmless.
And that is where the really destructively pernicious part of the problem comes in: when it comes time to think about what charitable giving you’re going to do, if you have the impression that government is already taxing you to make charitable contributions on your behalf (and to entities they just might have carefully vetted, evaluated, and prioritized), are you likely to just brush your hands and figure the exercise is over? You bethca. Although Americans give more money to charity as a percentage of their income than any other nationality on the planet, that percentage is dropping, especially when you take Churches out of the equation. The worst thing government can do to charities is make the public believe they’re getting public financing and there’s really not much need for individual giving.
The founders understood that danger long before we got this object lesson in what that danger actually looks like. That’s why we have this proscription in the Constitution. It is for the benefit of taxpayers, the Commonwealth, and especially to charities.
This time, Norm Leahy decided to leverage that the current officeholder in the Attorney General’s office is someone who actually reads the law and makes decisions based on what that law reads (ya hear that, you idiots running Illinois Supreme Court?), and managed to get his local delegate to request an opinion. That inexorably sets off a whole chain of events where today we have the Governor promising for some undetermined time that until they can come up with a really creative explanation as to why handing taxpayer dollars over to charities is not actually handing taxpayer dollars over to charities, they’re not going to make any appropriations to any charitable institution which is not owned or controlled by the Commonwealth.
So for a time at least we’re actually going to be governed by the Rule of Law, rather than the nearly irresistible appeal of legislators to take taxpayer money and dole it out to their friends, especially those whom might help them get re-elected. I don’t know how long the Constitution can withstand this assault by political greed and such open invitations to corruption and graft, but for as long as there are Norm Leahys around to ask intelligent questions of elected officials like Ken Cuccinelli, I suppose it’ll survive for at least a little while longer.
The opinions expressed here are solely the views of the author, and not representative of the position of any organization, political party, doughnut shop, knitting guild, or waste recycling facility, but may be correctly attributed to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. If anything in the above article has offended you, please click here to receive an immediate apology.
Leave a Reply