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Senate Appropriations approves $1 in funding for IRC

With the cash-strapped Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission on the verge of going broke and the threat of yet more legal action looming, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to give the remapping panel just a single dollar in funding for the rest of the fiscal year.

The original version of SB1533 left blank the amount of additional money the IRC would get for the remainder of fiscal year 2012. Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said he would not vote to give the IRC a blank check or pass a bill without a dollar figure already set, and amended the bill to provide just $1.

“My amendment is not saying the redistricting commission would get one dollar. My commission puts a price tag on the bill,” Gould said.

But Gould’s amendment was no doubt a bad omen for the commission, as he and several GOP colleagues said they don’t think the IRC should even get that much extra money for FY12.

And whether the committee approved $1 or $1 billion, it likely won’t stop a lawsuit by the IRC that appears more imminent each day.

The Arizona Constitution says the Legislature must fund the IRC and “shall make the necessary appropriations (for the IRC) by a majority vote.” The IRC last week authorized its attorneys to start preparing a special action with the Arizona Supreme Court. The commission expects to run out of money on March 16, and counsel and staff said the IRC must sue for more funding in the state’s highest court if the money isn’t approved by Friday.

The Senate committee on Tuesday approved SB1533 9-4, with the committee’s four Democrats voting against the bill in protest. The House Appropriations Committee will hear a separate bill, which would give the IRC about $1.1 million for the remainder of fiscal year 2012, today.

Gould said a lawsuit over the funding is “most likely” inevitable, noting that the bill doesn’t even have an emergency clause that would implement the new funding immediately.

“They’re not getting any money this week,” he said.

Republican senators, nearly all of whom voted in November to oust independent IRC Chairwoman Colleen Mathis – Sen. Jerry Lewis, R-Mesa, was not yet in the Senate at the time – lashed out at the commission, questioning why it was over budget and whether the hundreds of thousands of dollars it racked up in legal fees was an appropriate use of its money.

IRC Executive Director Ray Bladine said the commission, which had a $3 million budget for FY12, is on pace to spend about $3.5 million by the end of the year. About $632,000 was spent on legal fees fighting Mathis’ removal, which was overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court, and in an investigation by Attorney General Tom Horne and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery into alleged violations of the state’s open meeting law.

Republican lawmakers are mostly hostile to the IRC, which they accuse of favoring Democrats in the selection of attorneys and mapping consultants, ignoring constitutional criteria for drawing district lines and violating open meeting law.

That anger was on full display as Republican senators combed through the IRC’s legal expenses, asking pointed questions about how much money was spent on each of several law firms in the two lawsuits. Others lashed out at the court system, which they accused of violating the Arizona Constitution when it reinstated Mathis.

Shooter, the committee’s chairman, took a hostile tone early. When Bladine compared the IRC’s $3.5 projected budget with the previous commission’s $3.38 million budget, noting that the current IRC faced lawsuits earlier than its predecessor, Shooter said the comparison is inappropriate.

“I want to point out the other commission was sued. This commission did the suing,” said Shooter, R-Yuma. “They’re the ones that incurred these bills voluntarily.”

The first IRC faced four lawsuits over its maps, but the court battles mostly didn’t take place until after fiscal year 2002, the commission’s first full fiscal year in operation.

Sen. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said even the cost of the current IRC’s general counsel, attorneys Joe Kanefield and Mary O’Grady, was high compared to the last commission. He said the general counsel costs, which totaled more than $700,000, were about twice as much as the first IRC.

“I’m just having trouble justifying this, realizing that yours is an inherently litigious commission,” Biggs said.

Several GOP senators said Gould’s amendment essentially gave them a reason to vote for the bill and move it forward. But some made it clear that they didn’t want to give the IRC any more money. Even Gould, who accused the IRC of repeatedly violating the Arizona Constitution, said he probably wouldn’t vote for more funding in the full Senate, even if it was only $1.

“It really goes against my grain. However, since we’re in this position … I vote ‘aye,’” Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem, said.

“I’m against giving them any more resources,” said Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Peoria. “I think a dollar’s too generous.”

Democrats, who have largely defended the IRC, said the committee should simply give the IRC the money it needs. Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, said the legal fees in incurred were due to attacks from Republicans.

“The IRC should be given the financial support they need,” Lopez said. “Had the attacks not been made by people who were disgruntled … there would not have been those kinds of legal expenditures.”

After the meeting, Bladine said a lawsuit isn’t imminent and held out hope that the IRC will receive its funding in time. He even took an upbeat attitude and a diplomatic tone about the $1 appropriation Gould penciled into the bill, though he acknowledged that the chances of getting the funding in time were “pretty slim.”

“He just wanted a figure in there so he didn’t have to write a blank check,” Bladine said of Gould. “I understood his position. (The $1 amendment) allowed it to go out of the committee and go on.”

But he acknowledged that the IRC still had to prepare for a special action, which the commission’s attorneys have discretion on when to file.

“I’ll go day by day, talk to the attorneys and talk to the Legislature and see where we are. And I guess I’ll know more tomorrow,” Bladine said. “It may be that we do it Friday, but I don’t want to preclude the opportunity of them doing what the Constitution anticipates that they should do.”

SB1533 includes a provision requiring the state auditor general to compile a report for the Legislature and governor on the IRC’s revenues and expenditures for the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years. The committee also approved an amendment, sponsored by Biggs, that would require the Arizona Department of Administration to report monthly to House and Senate appropriations chairmen on whether expenditures made by the current IRC are “necessary and lawful.”

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