Today’s Washington Post’s article on the controversy in Manassas over public spending on non-governmental entities helps to keep this useful discussion alive, but largely ignores the wide and long-running policy debate that continues to defy resolution. Public officials can’t seem to give up their slush funds, which yield both political and personal benefits for public “servants” but the persistent chorus of outrage over these may someday mean they’ll have to.
It can’t come soon enough.
Although I would not at all be surprised if this debate started much earlier, I remember the issue beginning to flare around 2006. Then flush with extra cash needing someplace to go, state legislators competed with one another to earmark millions of dollars in public funds to charities and other non-state entities in their districts. A few in the blogosphere decried the practice, but the complaints hadn’t grown widespread enough to cause much beyond Chuck Colgan explaining that “bringing home the bacon” was what his constituents expected of him and he was proud to top the list of legislators abusing fiscal responsibility and the Constitution of Virginia.
The boom times quickly came to an end about the same time newly-minted Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an opinion that this practice was indeed illegal, which put an end to this widespread and bipartisan defiance by the General Assembly of the very constitution it swore to uphold each session. Not only was there no longer extra taxpayer money at the state level to hand out to favored beneficiaries, but even if it somehow materialized at some point the General Assembly was given notice that one more shenanigan would land it in court.
That same constitutional provision does explicitly permit the General Assembly to grant authority to localities to dole out taxpayer dollars to non-state entities in a completely bizarre instance of a power not held by a superior division of power being granted by it to an inferior division of power. The law that implements this is one of the worst-crafted pieces of legislative malfeasance in Virginia history, granting localities power to do pretty much whatever they want because of a problem with the construction of the act that largely negates what the General Assembly was trying to do. Localities avail themselves of every opportunity to extend their abuse of this act as far as possible. As a result, we have county supervisors and city councilmen doling out cash to their favored groups with nearly no restrictions as they curry favor with the influential and receive free dinners, theatrical performances, and other valuable benefits as a result.
It is stunning that any elected official with the slimmest sense of moral righteousness can justify this practice in any way. Wealth is extracted from taxpayers by the awesome and deadly legal force of the state and doled out by elected officials in return for political favor, exclusive hundred-dollar dinners, and undoubtedly, campaign contributions. Supervisor Wally Covington even goes so far as collecting campaign contributions from volunteer fire departments that he appropriates money to out of his district funds. The wife of Manassas City Councilman Mark Wolfe is paid a salary by Manassas Ballet Theater which obtains a significant amount of its funding from the City of Manassas, while Mark Wolfe is the head of the Arts Council that has a role in distributing funding. The appearance of impropriety here is enormous, if not suggestive that the incitement towards outright corruption is overwhelming and unavoidable.
At the same time, the taxpayers who are footing the bill for all this are suffering one of the most persistent and difficult economic downturns in modern history. Families are dependent on coupon-clipping to make ends meet, free and reduced cost school lunch participation rates have exploded, and another round of home foreclosures is on the way. The same families struggling to provide basic food and shelter for their families are paying the bill for elected officials to attend special fundraising galas at the Hylton Center so they can hear Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw explain to the audience the importance of re-electing Chuck Colgan to the Senate of Virginia. How could any elected official bear to attend swanky dinners that their constituents were forced to pay for under penalty of fines, arrest, and possible jail time? How could they not vomit in their mouths at the idea their constituents are being ripped off so they can wear a tux, eat lobster, and listen to Dick Saslaw give a campaign speech for Chuck Colgan?
The rather obvious solution to this state of affairs comes in two parts - ruthlessly hold accountable those elected officials that engage in these utterly immoral practices and fix Virginia Code § 15.2-953. I appealed to Delegate Scott Lingamfelter to do just that last session, but that idea didn’t make the cut amongst all the other things he was trying to do that session. By the time I found this out no one else I contacted about it said they had any room left under the limits imposed on the number of bills members can introduce each session. It could be a case of legislators being less than eager to stop the gravy train for local allies, or just bad fortune last time around. Next session we’ll find out for sure.
In the meantime, the opportunity for delivering accountability in Manassas City is rapidly approaching. A strong message delivered there could change a lot in Virginia, and an object lesson about the consequences of this indefensible behavior is long overdue.
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