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

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Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based group that has criticized congressional earmarking, said people have gotten too wrapped up in the word "earmark" in recent years. But he said any projects chosen by the governor deserve heightened attention.

"If [U.S. Sen. James] Webb got $500,000 for renovating Operation Smile's headquarters, we would have it down as an earmark," Ellis said. "That deserves extra scrutiny."

Martin said McDonnell chose to give money to the food banks because they provide an essential need for Virginians in a cost-effective manner. He proposed sending money on Operation Smile and OpSail because of their impact on economic development; for example, the state estimates that OpSail will bring in $150 million to Virginia next year.

Like most governments, Virginia has long made donations to nonprofit groups that serve the public good or spark economic development. In flush times, legislators and the governor steered millions to their favorite groups and museums across the state.

But the practice had been largely halted in recent years as the state was forced to cut billions amid the deep economic recession.

And for some activists who have been politically energized by the need to curb what they call out-of-control government spending, shelving such grants has been a good thing.

McDonnell has faced similar gripes over economic development proposals to spend millions to lure private companies to Virginia and a transportation plan to borrow $2.9 billion to fix the state's clogged roads.

"It's a problem that Republicans and conservatives have across the board, at the state and federal level," said Quentin Kidd, a government professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. "They've complained bitterly about liberals being willing to spend. But when it comes down to it, it's not really about the spending - it's a question of spending priorities."

Help appreciated

Representatives of some organizations said they desperately need the state grants, even though the amount is less than they had requested.

Virginia gave $1 million to food banks in 2009 and 2010 in budgets originally written by then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) as the economic downturn led to a spike in unemployment.

Leslie Van Horn represents the state's seven food banks as executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks. She said she asked for additional money this year but was told McDonnell, a strong supporter of the organization, would recommend only $500,000.

"It impacts the lives of all Virginians,'' Van Horn said. "We all have the right to have food on the table."


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