PHOENIX - State lawmakers grudgingly approved $500,000 Thursday to keep the Independent Redistricting Commission in business - and help it fight the Legislature.
The funding, given final approval by both the House and Senate, falls short of the $2.2 million the commission sought in supplemental funding for the balance of this budget year, which runs through June 30.
But Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said the amount will provide enough to pay the commission's lawyers to be ready for a trial set to begin in March in federal court challenging the maps the panel drew for legislative districts. He said the rest of the funds the commission wanted are unnecessary - at least for the time being.
The commission, formed by voters in 2000, is charged with drawing the lines for the state's 30 legislative and nine congressional districts. Before 2000, that was the responsibility of lawmakers.
Three lawsuits have been filed challenging the commission's maps, including one by the Republican-controlled Legislature itself. The first of these cases goes to trial on March 23.
Ray Bladine, the commission's executive director, asked for $2.2 million on top of the $1.4 million lawmakers approved for the current year.
Biggs, however, said it's not clear all that money is needed right now.
He said the request includes $800,000 to draw new maps. But Biggs said that will be necessary only if challengers convince judges the commission acted improperly, something that the panel's lawyers are not conceding.
Biggs, who does not like the maps, said he would be happy to spend the money on new ones if and when the court rules against the commission.
Some of the other funds, Biggs said, are for expenses not yet incurred or expected to be incurred immediately. That, he said, leaves only the $500,000 needed for the March trial.
Even that reduced figure, however, still left some Republican legislators unhappy.
Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, complained of what he said was a $60,000 expenditure for several telephone conferences with a Harvard professor.
"I think people would be outraged on how this commission spends money," he said, refusing to support the additional $500,000.
Bladine, however, said the expense was for the Harvard professor and his students to actually analyze the statistics from each of the districts formed to ensure the maps complied with the federal Voting Rights Act. He said that analysis was necessary to get the required federal approval.
Legislative leaders have conceded there is probably no legal way not to fund the commission, which voters set up in the Arizona Constitution as a separate body with specific duties. But Shooter said that does not give them free rein to spend as they want.
"We're going to watch them like a hawk," he said.
The lawsuit going to trial in March charges the commission drew legislative districts in a way designed to benefit Democratic candidates and disadvantage Republicans.
Challengers hope to show the commission ignored requirements to make the districts of equal population.
The Legislature itself has a separate lawsuit contending that only it is empowered to draw congressional lines despite the voters taking away that responsibility in 2000.
A third lawsuit in state court charges the commission did not follow proper procedures in crafting congressional maps.