End may be near for Michigan redistricting panel, a year after finishing maps
- Commission would go dormant after lawsuits wrap up, could be reactivated
- The 13-member panel sued the Legislature last month for $3.7 million after its funding was eliminated
- The Michigan Senate allocated $1.5 million for the commission, although commissioners believe they’ll need more
Michigan’s independent redistricting commission now has a plan to go dormant once lawsuits against its work wrap up — but a fight with the Legislature over funding for commissioners’ salaries and legal bills remains unresolved.
The 13-member panel finished the thrust of its work in late 2021, when commissioners approved state legislative and congressional maps that will last 10 years were first used in the November 2022 elections.
Citing ongoing litigation, commissioners have continued to meet periodically and collect salaries, although state funding dried up after the commission was left out of the current budget. The panel has been broke since last October, and Edward Woods III, the commission’s executive director, estimates it owes about $432,000 in outstanding bills.
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Under a plan adopted this week, the commission is expected to go dormant once outstanding litigation ends. Currently, one lawsuit challenging the commission’s adherence to Voting Rights Act requirements in Detroit remains pending in federal court.
Should other lawsuits challenging the panel’s work be filed during the current 10-year redistricting cycle, the commission could reactivate.
Until then, though, commissioners said the plan is to remain active, meaning members would continue to collect a salary constitutionally set at 25 percent of the governor’s $159,300 annual salary, a little less than $40,000 annually.
“Certainly, we have heard concerns that people are saying, ‘Well, why are you still getting paid? Well, we’re still doing work,’” Commissioner Steve Lett, one of the panel’s five independent members, said during a Friday media event.
“It was kind of a foregone conclusion that there would be one or more lawsuits filed, and there were, so once those are all done, we go out of business,” he continued. “If we have to re-activate, we do that in a reasonable manner, so that any future changes in maps that might be required by a court would come back before the commission that drew it.”
Voters in 2018 passed a ballot measure that created the independent commission to draw legislative and congressional boundaries every 10 years, ending a process that gave control of the process to the party in control of the Legislature.
That system resulted in districts that allowed Republicans to control the Legislature for decades, despite sometimes receiving fewer total votes than Democrats. A panel of judges in 2019 concluded Michigan’s districts were a “political gerrymander of historical proportions."
The redistricting commission drew maps that were far more competitive, helping Democrats in November take a majority in both the state House and Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years.
But the ballot language provided little clarity on how the commission would wind down its practices after completing its primary task of creating maps.
Now, aside from the lawsuit, the commission’s most pressing concern now is getting funding to pay its bills.
In December, attorneys for the commission filed a lawsuit against the Michigan Legislature, asking state courts to compel lawmakers to pay them roughly $3.17 million, arguing lawmakers “failed to meet (their) Constitutional duty” to fund the commission’s needs.
The commission had received $13.8 million from the state since 2019. The constitutional amendment requires the Legislature “appropriate funds sufficient to compensate the commissioners and to enable the commission to carry out its functions, operations and activities.”
Republicans who controlled the Legislature last year balked at paying more, arguing the commission’s work ended when the maps were adopted.
On Wednesday, Democrats who now control the Senate approved legislation that would allocate $1.5 million to the commission. To pass, the spending plan needs the blessing of both the Michigan House and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Senate Republicans opposed the plan, citing concern over both the speed of passage and content of the legislation. Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, told reporters that he believed commissioners “didn’t do their constitutional duties.”
Lett acknowledged the proposed $1.5 million “goes a long way” toward resolving the dispute, but said the funding will likely only last until May or June if current litigation plays out as expected.
“We are expecting to use the $1.5 (million) fairly rapidly, unless for some reason the lawsuit goes away, and then of course, we would go away,” Lett said.
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