Redistricting commission reverses pay raises, faces pending shortfall
Michigan’s redistricting commission could face a budget shortfall after this April if state lawmakers don’t appropriate more funds.
The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is blaming legal fees for driving its costs much higher than budgeted.
“If you look at budget year-to-year, there is virtually no difference. Some areas have gone down significantly. So, really, the only expense that makes this budget have a shortfall would be the litigation in defending the maps, which is active at this point in time,” outgoing Executive Director Suann Hammersmith told reporters Thursday.
Since completing its work drawing legislative district boundaries late last year, the commission has faced multiple challenges to its work including one active lawsuit in state court and another in federal court.
Hammersmith said, at this point, the commission's funds won't last to the end of the fiscal year.
“The commission will not be able to pay its bills. I mean they will get to a point, if not appropriated additional funds, that they will not be able to pay their bills, so all the invoicing would be put on hold until there were additional funds appropriated,” Hammersmith said.
She said letters asking for more funding will go out to the legislative appropriations committee chairs “very quickly.”
But state Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Stamas (R-Midland) said he’s disappointed in the group’s use of money.
“They had nearly 25% of the general funds that is allotted to the Secretary of State. That is, I think, over $3 million of funds,” he said.
The state constitution is a bit murky when it comes to what say, if any, the legislature would have in funding the commission’s legal defense.
It reads, “the legislature shall appropriate funds sufficient to compensate the commissioners and to enable the commission to carry out its functions, operations and activities.” But it doesn’t describe in detail what should happen if lawmakers disagree about much would be sufficient, only saying the state should indemnify the commission if the legislature doesn’t cover costs.
“There’s not much constitutional wiggle room here. They’re basically a fourth branch of government. They have legislative authority under this matter,” state House Appropriations Committee Chair Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) said.
Meanwhile, the commission is reversing a 7% pay raise it gave itself last month.
At the time, commissioners justified the raise by calling it a cost-of-living adjustment, citing rising inflation. They said the departure of former general counsel Julianne Pastula helped pay for the budgetary difference.
But public backlash mounted, causing commissioners to try multiple times at their March 10 meeting to lower their salaries. The issue came up again at their meeting Thursday.
Commissioner Rhonda Lange said the group needs to be responsible with its money.
“There’s a lot of people out there that are feeling inflation that don’t have jobs, that don’t get a raise. And this is taxpayer funded money. And, not to mention, we have to go to the legislators and ask for more money. How does that look?” Lange asked.
At Thursday’s meeting, commissioners like new Vice Chair Dustin Witjes relented.
“I don’t want to see it come — be brought back up really because it’s going to be pointless, and we’re just going to have a long conversation that we don’t have to have every meeting at this particular point,” Witjes said. “I’m willing to change my vote here because I just don’t want to see it come back up again.”
The motion to reduce the commission’s salary to previous levels carried by a 12-1 vote. Commissioner Brittni Kellom served as the lone no vote.