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Technical guides

State Gift laws database

Are you considering installing localized infrastructure on private property using public funds? Are you concerned about possible legal implications of your project?

As part of WaterNow’s “Tap into Resilience Toolkit” – an online suite of substantive information, guidance, and implementation strategies to illuminate the path forward to transforming water infrastructure for the 21st century – we are building a searchable database of all 50 states’ constitutional provisions related to the use of public dollars for improvements on private property—or what are more commonly referred to as state “gift prohibitions.” In the wake of the public-debt crises of the 1830s when eight states defaulted on all or part of their debt incurred to build roads, canals, railroads, and other public infrastructure through public-private partnerships, nearly every state across the country adopted laws prohibiting the use of public funds for private purposes. Together these state constitutional amendments enacted to avoid a similar financial crisis in the future form the “public purpose doctrine,” which, in sum, provides that no state government may give funds to private persons unless doing so would serve a public purpose.

Each state’s constitutional gift rules are unique, however, and are not necessarily a barrier to deploying localized water infrastructure on private property using public capital. WaterNow’s forthcoming database will allow users to identify and link to their state’s relevant constitutional sections, learn about potential exceptions to any prohibition against the use of public funds for private purposes, and access any potentially relevant state-specific attorney general opinions or other local agency opinions on the subject. The database is meant to be a starting place as local water leaders begin deploying localized water infrastructure on private property.

Check back soon to explore this valuable tool!

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