Unpopular, but right

Published 9:42 pm Friday, January 28, 2011

There’s one thing that Virginians can’t say about Ken Cuccinelli: They can’t say he’s scared to risk controversy with an unpopular opinion.

During his year in office, Cuccinelli has been a lightning rod for those who oppose the tenets of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration. From his ill-advised attempt to clean up the state seal by covering the exposed breast of the Roman goddess Virtus to his fight against the federal health care law that Congress passed last year, the conservative attorney general has worked hard — and in the face of considerable national attention and even ridicule — in support of a conservative agenda.

On Friday, he issued an opinion that could cost him support among moderate Republicans. But his answer to a legislator’s query about state funding of charities will surely endear him to fans of limited government, a constituency that has grown in size and power during the past two years.

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According to Cuccinelli, the Virginia Constitution does not permit the General Assembly to appropriate money for charitable organizations, regardless of their virtue. The opinion came in response to a delegate’s request for direction in regards to Gov. McDonnell’s budget requests proposing to allocate $500,000 to Operation Smile and $500,000 to the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

“The question is not whether these proposed amendments serve noble purposes and that they would provide needed relief — unquestionably, they are and they would,” Cuccinelli wrote in his opinion. “The question is one of fidelity to the text of our constitution. And where the Constitution commands or forbids, the government must obey.”

Virginia legislators are asked every year to support a variety of charitable organizations. Most truly do serve noble causes. And there is plenty of temptation for these elected officials to commit comparatively tiny slices of tax revenue to solve the great needs of those organizations. In fact, were it not for Virginia’s lean economy, the issue might never have been raised with the attorney general. Legislators likely would have approved the governor’s requests without blinking.

But the nearly unfathomable debt crisis that the United States faces on the federal level should serve to illustrate the reason that some of the greatest Virginians ever — among them George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — believed that such contributions should be unconstitutional. The slippery slope of state-enforced good deeds, they knew, eventually would bankrupt the treasury and strip citizens of their conviction to be personally involved in charitable work.

Once again, Cuccinelli has taken what is likely to be an unpopular position. This time, he was right on the mark.