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Lansing — A House appropriations bill would allow the state’s Republican-led Legislature to hold the purse strings for the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission approved by voters in November.

The spending bill also would chip away at Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel’s budget with a recommended 15% “administrative reduction.”

Referred out of subcommittee Tuesday, the bill also proposes funding levels for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office that are significantly lower than those recommended by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The dips in funding for the commission and the department of state threaten voters’ wishes for an “impartial and transparent redistricting process,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians.

“The House proposal shifts the budget for the commission to the Legislature, which defies the will of the 2.5 million Michiganders who amended the state constitution specifically to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians and placed it with an independent citizens redistricting commission,” Wang said in a statement.

The House General Government budget recommendation would include $3.2 million in general fund money for the redistricting commissioners’ salaries and operational costs — $1.4 million less than what was recommended the governor — and move that allocation from the Department of State budget to the Legislature’s budget.

The transfer to the Legislature’s budget makes it easier for the commission to comply with language in the voter-approved initiative that requires the commission to make reports to the Legislature, said subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mark Huizenga, R-Walker.

“The operational side of it would still be in the SOS,” Huizenga said.

Where the money for the commission is housed is less concerning than the "gimmicks" the House used to underfund the group's operations, said Shawn Starkey, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office. 

"The Legislature must stop playing games with democracy and must fully fund both the Department of State and the redistricting commission," Starkey said in a statement. 

The budget referred from subcommittee Tuesday includes a 3% administrative cut and 25% information technology funding reduction across all departments in the general government budget.

The reduction to administrative operational funding was increased to 15% for Nessel’s office, a cut of about $5.3 million that Democratic Rep. Jon Hoadley called “overly partisan and political.”

“It seems to me this is arbitrary and capricious,” said Hoadley of Kalamazoo.

The 3% administrative cuts and 25% IT decreases were to encourage efficiencies within state departments, Huizenga said. The additional cuts to Nessel’s office were not politically motivated but stemmed from the discovery of “additional work project dollars out there” where legislators felt efficiencies could be realized, Huizenga said.

In April, the Senate's proposal recommended a 10% "administrative reduction" to Nessel's budget. 

“The idea is not be pejorative about it but to make sure they work very hard and that we support Michigan’s hard-working taxpayer,” Huizenga said.

Overall, Nessel's budget would decrease by roughly $5 million in fiscal year 2019-20.

Boilerplate language also would require Nessel to report in person to House and Senate appropriation subcommittees to present any "findings" that prompted the attorney general to enter any lawsuit against the federal government. The language would require Nessel to provide a cost estimate of the lawsuit, as well as quarterly reports on the office’s overall lawsuit settlement proceeds fund.

Nessel has withdrawn from several conservative lawsuits Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette had joined while signing on to others by Democratic attorneys general challenging actions by GOP President Donald Trump’s administration.

The recommended gross appropriation for the Secretary of State’s office in fiscal year 2019-20 is about half a million more than the current year but is nearly $8 million less than what was recommended by the governor.

The $3.2 million allocation for the redistricting commission is lower than the $4.6 million recommended in Whitmer’s budget.

The House replaced roughly $5.4 million of the Secretary of State’s general fund money with restricted funds, allowing a lower allocation to the redistricting commission. The November ballot language approved by voters required the commission’s funding to equal not less than 25% of the Secretary of State’s general fund budget.

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