When Virginia’s attorney general issued an opinion in January stating that the state’s constitution prohibited the appropriation of public funds to private charities, the non-profit sector was stunned. Within days the money stopped flowing to dozens of charities, many already cash-strapped. The political sector, including the governor (whose favored charities had been cut off), pointed fingers. Then began the study of the state’s constitution. The surprise to many, including me, was that the constitutional language did not require much interpretation. Its plain words banned any “appropriation to any charitable institution which is not owned or controlled” by the state. Other surprises were that Virginia isn’t alone on this issue and that such state bans are a very old idea. But in an era of billions of dollars in public monies being funneled to private charities, it is odd to learn that many states are constitutionally banned from the practice.
In 1914 a social work-oriented group published a survey of state constitutions on this very point. Out of 46 states responding to the survey, six had absolute bans on giving public funds to charities: Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Montana, Texas and Wyoming. Six others required a two-thirds vote of the legislature before funds could go to a charity: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Dakota. California, New York and Virginia had absolute bans but permitted some specific charities to receive funds. The remaining states had no form of such constitutional bans. There have been changes since 1914, but not many.