When Cuccinelli’s opinion was released in January, it was widely thought to immediately affect only a handful of grants sought by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) during the winter legislative session.
It is now clear that the opinion has had a far broader impact.
For months, Virginia officials have quietly been consulting with Cuccinelli’s office about whether to cancel payments to dozens of nonprofit organizations approved by the General Assembly last year in the state budget.
While the reviews have been underway, the state has suspended payments to some charities, including the Virginia Association of Free Clinics and CHIP of Virginia, an organization that works with low-income families and pregnant women.
On Friday, Cuccinelli’s office informed state officials that it had completed its review of a number of charities funded through the Virginia Department of Health, deeming some payments unconstitutional.
A department deputy commissioner said efforts are underway to find alternative routes for funding the groups.
But if new funding avenues that pass constitutional muster are not found, the decision could endanger millions of dollars in funding slated for groups that work with some of the state’s neediest residents. The agency said it would not release the names of the groups affected until next week, as allowed under public information laws, to give time for its officials to deliver the news.
In Virginia, legal opinions offered by the state attorney general are considered advisory and do not carry the force of law. In his 15 months in office, Cuccinelli has issued a stream of controversial legal interpretations, written in response to inquiries from lawmakers.
The opinions have sometimes been dismissed by political adversaries as legal missives that carry little practical weight. But the reaction of McDonnell and the machinery of state government to Cuccinelli’s opinion on charitable funding shows the far-reaching impact his legal pronouncements can have.
In the opinion, Cuccinelli held that grants to nonprofits violate the state constitution, which prohibits the General Assembly from appropriating funds “to any charitable institution which is not owned or controlled by the Commonwealth.”
State lawmakers have for years gotten around the constitution’s language by classifying charities as “historical” or “cultural” agencies.
Reviewing all funding
On the day Cuccinelli’s opinion was published, McDonnell’s chief of staff, Martin Kent, e-mailed every state agency head, asking that each department submit for constitutional review a list of all charitable groups slated for funding in the state budget.