McDonnell's funding for some nonprofits in Virginia budget doesn't sit well with everyone

Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 27, 2010; 6:06 PM

RICHMOND - Tucked into a multimillion-dollar package of recommended tweaks to Virginia's two-year budget is a suggestion by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell that the state steer dollars to some private nonprofit groups even as tax revenues remain sluggish.

When the General Assembly convenes next month, he has asked that lawmakers consider spending $1 million to promote OpSail 2012, a tourist event that will bring tall sailing ships to ports along the Eastern seaboard to commemorate the War of 1812.

McDonnell (R) also recommended a $500,000 grant to help fund a new headquarters for Operation Smile, a Hampton Roads-based charity that helps children with facial deformities, and another $500,000 for Virginia's food banks.

While the projects themselves may not be controversial, some Virginia spending hawks question whether the Republican governor is retreating from a promise to pare government to its core functions by using earmarks for private-sector groups.

McDonnell counters that the groups are doing good works - works that would be more expensive for government to perform - and creating jobs. The spending, however, illustrates the governor's difficulty in heading a conservative coalition in Richmond whose members are increasingly budget purists.

"These are smart, targeted investments of state dollars to groups and projects that help the commonwealth provide basic services, or help facilitate private-sector job creation and economic development," McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said. "The governor will not raise taxes. He is committed to using limited state dollars wisely to turn our economy around and help the people of Virginia."

No one has suggested that the groups McDonnell has favored are not worthy of taxpayer funding. But the items have raised consternation from some fiscal hard-liners who otherwise had been cheering McDonnell for a controversial proposal to eliminate state funding for public radio and television.

"We applauded the governor the other day for proposing cuts to public broadcasting, but it's important those cuts not be undermined by personal pet projects,'' said Ben Marchi, state director of Americans for Prosperity, which supports limited government. "[The state] shouldn't be increasing funding for any of these things during tough economic times."

Defining 'earmark'

While Republicans on Capitol Hill have pledged to stop earmarks - the process of inserting funding requests in legislation for hometown projects - some point to McDonnell as doing the opposite. But it's debatable whether his spending technically can be labeled earmarking because the moniker generally is given to pork advanced by lawmakers, not the executive branch.

Martin noted that, at times, federal earmarks are added quietly and with little scrutiny just before a bill is passed. In contrast, McDonnell has issued news releases about his priorities, and they will receive a full hearing.

But some fiscal conservatives urge scrutiny of the governor's proposals because he alone selected the programs from among many clamoring for assistance, and they would be funded outside of the state's routine spending formulas.

For instance, while the state will slash $77 million in funding for hospitals and doctors that serve Medicaid patients, McDonnell has recommended a $5 million grant for the Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, $1 million for the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk and $5 million for Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk.

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