Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli gave his official blessing to a school voucher-like program that will dole out $25 million in tax credits to individuals and businesses that fund scholarships for students to attend private schools, dismissing constitutional concerns raised by opponents.
The state's top lawyer said in a legal opinion that he found no problems with a law set to take effect July 1. Cuccinelli's decision backs tax credits pushed through the General Assembly earlier this year by Gov. Bob McDonnell and Republican lawmakers.
Cuccinelli recently issued the opinion in response to a request he got last December from Del. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who questioned whether the tax credits violate the state constitution, which bars spending public funds on private K-12 schools.
"From my point of view, these tax credits are doing through the back door what we can't from the front," Surovell told The Washington Examiner on Wednesday. "As a practical matter, it's the same thing as the state writing a check."
But Cuccinelli said that while the state constitution bars the legislature from appropriating money for private schools, the tax credit program is allowed because it "does not set aside a sum certain in the treasury" as direct aid to private schools.
"If the meaning of 'appropriation' were extended as you suggest, charitable donations to churches would not be deductible for Virginia income tax purposes," Cuccinelli wrote.
The law allows businesses and individuals to fund scholarships for students from households earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, about $69,000 a year for a family of four. The firm or person providing the scholarship could claim a tax credit worth 65 percent of the scholarship's cost. Proponents argue it benefits parents by providing educational choices.
Republican efforts to pass similar tax credits in previous years were routinely blocked by a democratically controlled Senate. This year, 19 Republican senators voted for the proposal and 19 Democrats opposed it, leaving it to Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, to break the tie. McDonnell signed the bill earlier this month.
Surovell questioned the delay of Cuccinelli's opinion, which didn't come until weeks after the legislature approved the tax credits and adjourned.
Cuccinelli spokeswoman Caroline Gibson said issuing opinions "depends on the complexity of the issue presented, the number of issues presented, and the number of attorneys involved at each level of review and their individual schedules and responsibilities."