Virginia Governor Vetoes Bill That Would Ban Pay-To-Play on Subsidies

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This week, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill that would have banned corporations seeking Governor’s Opportunity Fund (GOF) subsidies from making contributions or gifts to the elected official awarding those subsidies: in other words, the Governor himself. The bill had unanimous two-chamber support among both Republicans and Democrats, and members of both parties criticized the Governor’s action.

Governor McAuliffe’s primary objection cited in the veto to the bill was that state legislators ought to be held to the same standards. The statute and guidelines state that GOF subsidies are awarded primarily at the discretion of the Governor, though the General Assembly and the Attorney General have a modest oversight role. One co-sponsor of the bill stated that he hopes to re-introduce the bill again next session, though it’s unclear whether the bill will stay in its current form.

It’s a strange moment in Virginia politics. The bill arose out of concern related to the previous Governor’s gift scandal. Just after leaving office in January, former Governor Bob McDonnell was indicted, something that had never happened before in the state.

Is such legislation needed in Virginia?

Good Jobs First previously highlighted an apparent pay-to-play issue in Virginia when McDonnell awarded Northrop Grumman $3 million in GOF subsidies after receiving major campaign contributions from the company.

While banning contributions to politicians from companies seeking subsidies is one way to encourage stronger ethics in government, another approach could be to ban companies from receiving subsidies if they have given or subsequently give contributions to officials awarding or enforcing subsidy contracts. Both would deter pay-to-play practices. Excluding subsidies to campaign contributors would be far easier to implement by shifting implementation away from elected officials and onto agencies awarding subsidies. Just as failing to create jobs can result in recapture or rescission of subsidies, a subsidy contract can undergo a clawback if the agency finds that a company has given to key public officials.

Apparent pay-to-play subsidies are not a problem isolated to Virginia. For example:

  • Texas: As we blogged previously, several newspapers have suggested that economic development subsidies controlled by Texas Governor Rick Perry are tied to fund-raising.
  • Wisconsin: Investigative Reporter Mike Ivey reported this week that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a privatized economic development agency, has awarded more than 60 percent of $975 million in subsidies to companies that have contributed to Governor Scott Walker or the Republican Governor’s Association.

For decades, state and cities have taken strong stances against allowing gifts and campaign contributions to contractors. Why not ensure the same level of integrity when it comes to economic development spending?