The House Appropriations Committee unanimously agreed to give more money to the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, but it hasn’t settled on an amount as Republicans continue to raise questions over how the remapping panel is spending its money.
The committee voted 11-0 to pass HB2862. But Chairman John Kavanagh, the bill’s sponsor, amended the measure to replace a proposed $1.1 million appropriation with a blank space. Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said lawmakers must continue their fact-finding on the IRC and determine how much additional funding it should get for the fiscal year 2012.
On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $1 in extra funding for the IRC. Sen. Ron Gould included the amount, which was originally left blank, saying he did not want to give the commission a blank check.
Kavanagh said he didn’t share that view and wasn’t concerned about putting a blank space for an appropriation that will be determined later.
“I think it communicates the fact that between now and the floor we’re going to have to have to think about this and figure out what’s a reasonable amount. That is why I decided to insert the blank. I’m not committing us at this early stage to any particular amount,” Kavanagh said.
But some Republican members of the commission made it clear that they didn’t approve of the way the IRC has spent much of its money so far, especially legal fees incurred fighting an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office and Maricopa County Attorney’s Office into alleged open meeting law violations and the ouster of IRC Chairwoman Colleen Mathis by the Senate and Gov. Jan Brewer.
The hearing lacked many of the detailed questions about line-item expenditures that characterized the Senate committee’s hearing the previous day. Instead, Kavanagh and Rep. Tom Forese, R-Gilbert, focused on the IRC’s decision to fight the open meeting law investigation and Mathis’ ouster.
Some of Forese and Kavanagh’s questions highlighted long-running concerns that GOP lawmakers have had with the IRC, such as the commission’s decision to hire a mapping consultant with deep ties to Democratic candidates and causes, its decision to abandon state procurement guidelines in the hiring of consultants and lawyers, and its assertion that it does not have to comply with state open meeting law, a claim that a Maricopa County Superior Court judge agreed with in a 2011 ruling.
Kavanagh questioned IRC Executive Director Ray Bladine on why three of the five IRC members needed individual attorneys for the open meeting investigation, as well as why the state should pay for Mathis’ legal counsel after she’d been removed from office.
Kavanagh also asked why the IRC, which initially pledged to follow open meeting law, why it chose to fight the investigation into alleged violations, a legal battle that has cost the commission about $475,000 so far. Mathis and Democratic Commissioners Jose Herrera and Linda McNulty have refused to cooperate with the investigation, and the IRC hired individual attorneys for each of the three.
“I guess the reason we are defending ourselves is to try to establish for ourselves and future commissions what does apply in terms of open meeting law,” Bladine said.
“To make a point, an awful lot of taxpayer money is being expended,” Kavanagh replied.
Forese took issue with the legal expenses, staff size, cost comparisons for consulting firms and even the color printouts of charts that Bladine brought with him to the hearing. He noted that while the IRC is asking for more money, legislative staffers are taking furlough days, the state is trying to update antiquated software and a hole in a restroom ceiling in the House has gone unrepaired for eight months.
“One concern that I’m having here, we’re really in a financial pickle as a state,” Forese said. “We’re making great sacrifices.”
Bladine reiterated his comments from Tuesday’s hearing that the IRC will run out of money by mid-March and reminded the committee that the Arizona Constitution requires the Legislature to fund the commission.
Because of unexpected legal costs from the Mathis removal and open meeting investigation, Bladine said the $3 million appropriation the IRC received for FY12 won’t be enough, and predicted it would need about $500,000 to close the budget gap.
Even if the Arizona Court of Appeals delays Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s appeal of the open meeting ruling, as the IRC’s attorneys have requested, Bladine said it will need money in case it faces new lawsuits or if the U.S. Department of Justice orders the commission to make changes to its congressional or legislative maps.
The IRC is preparing to file a possible special action with the Arizona Supreme Court within the next week if more funding isn’t approved.
“The Arizona Constitution indicates that adequate funding should be made available to the commission,” he said. “Potentially there would be litigation costs (if funding isn’t approved) that nobody wants to see happen.”
The hearing largely lacked the fireworks of Tuesday’s Senate hearing, but the unanimous bipartisan vote still came with some partisan squabbling.
Kavanagh and House Minority Leader Chad Campbell spent several minutes sparring over constitutional language on IRC funding and whether the IRC should have paid for Mathis’ attorney after she’d been temporarily removed as chair. Campbell, D-Phoenix, said the Arizona Constitution doesn’t give the Legislature much “wiggle room” on whether to fund the IRC.
“If you want to read the constitution I suggest you visit our website,” Campbell told Kavanagh.
After the hearing, Bladine said he’s hopeful the Legislature will approve more funding in time to head off the looming Supreme Court battle. Earlier in the day, he told the Arizona Capitol Times that the IRC can’t afford to wait past Monday or Tuesday to file a special action.
“I am encouraged. I am still very worried about the timeframe, but it seems to me that the House has had some discussion with the Senate and they’re trying to do something. I hope I’m right,” Bladine said. “I feel better now than I did this morning.”