MADISON -- Attorneys hired by state lawmakers to help redraw Wisconsin's political boundaries charged taxpayers more than $2 million to plot legal strategies, bring in legal experts and answer open records requests seeking details from the legal bills they submitted to the state, an Associated Press review of the documents found.
Unable to agree on a new political map, lawmakers spent taxpayer money on sending an attorney to a conference on redistricting, hiring consultants and even reimbursing attorneys for time spent doing media interviews.
Jay Heck of Common Cause in Wisconsin said lawmakers wasted taxpayer dollars by paying attorneys to do a job they are constitutionally required to do. Heck said the expense was particularly egregious considering the state's budget deficit, which legislative fiscal analysts predict could hit $2.8 billion for the two-year budget that begins July 1.
"The only winners here are the lawyers, who have made out like bandits," Heck said.
A federal court in Milwaukee redrew Wisconsin's political boundaries after a two-day trial in April after lawmakers failed to agree on a plan.
Lawmakers must redraw the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts every 10 years to reflect population shifts and ensure districts have roughly the same number of people. But the process ended up in court in 1982 and 1992 after the Legislature passed a plan the governor vetoed.
Expecting another legal fight, legislative leaders quietly approved using taxpayer money two years ago to pay lawyers to battle over redrawing the lines.
Republicans control the Assembly 54-43, while Democrats control the Senate 18-15.
Since approving the money, lawyers hired by the Senate to represent Democrats have charged taxpayers $720,338.87 for legal expenses. Attorneys hired by the Assembly to represent Republicans spent $1.3 million. In 1992, the two houses together spent $581,692, according to the legislative chief clerks.
The AP review of the legal bills found attorneys spent the vast majority of their time in numerous meetings and planning sessions, but the bills also show:
n Lawyers representing Republicans paid University of California-Irvine professor Bernard Grofman and University of Oklahoma political science professor Keith Gaddie $99,031.14 for their work on the case, including testifying at the April trial.
n Lawyers representing Democrats spent $94,450 in consulting fees and expenses for University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professors Kenneth Meyer and David Canon to testify during the April trial.
n Attorney Michael May, who represented Democrats, spent $400 to register for an educational conference on redistricting in Dallas and another $1,143.58 in traveling expenses.
n Lawyers charged taxpayers for media interviews, though neither the Senate nor the Assembly bills list specific dollar amounts for those activities.
n Attorneys for Democrats were paid for unpacking their materials after returning to Madison from the April trial.
n Attorneys for Republicans were paid up to $300 an hour, while Democratic attorneys earned up to $220 an hour.
n Attorneys charged Republicans for answering open records requests filed by the media and Rep. Dave Travis, D-Madison. The bills do not list a dollar amount.
"I consider this to be a misappropriation of public funds. It's downright thievery," Travis said.
Forty states were involved in litigation this year over redistricting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Courts drew political boundaries for seven states, including Wisconsin.
Wisconsin's process landed in federal court after a group of citizens led by former Gov. Tony Earl filed a lawsuit, believing lawmakers would fail to agree on a plan.
The Assembly and Senate passed competing legislative maps but were unable to compromise. But they approved a congressional map that was signed into law.
"In the great scheme of things, this isn't a whole hell of a lot of money, but it's money we can't afford to be throwing out the
window," said Earl, governor from 1983-87.
Senate President Fred Risser, D-Madison, and Rep. Bonnie Ladwig, R-Racine, who chaired the Assembly's redistricting committee, defended the legal bills as a necessary cost to present the best legal case each side could for the trial.
They also said the courts produced a map that was fair to both sides, unlike the maps lawmakers drew.
Risser stressed the Assembly spent twice as much money as the Senate on legal costs. The budget bill the Senate passed last year also included a $350,000 cap on redistricting bills for each house. But it was removed in the final negotiations to produce the compromise budget both houses eventually passed.
"It would be foolish to impose a cap and let the other side spend an unlimited amount. It just wouldn't be fair," Risser said.
Ladwig said she was unhappy the legal tab was so high, but she said redistricting happens only once a decade and affects all Wisconsin residents by determining who represents them in the Legislature.
She also said the lawyers only charged the state for doing interviews because reporters called them.
The Wisconsin State Bar has no general billing standard, but it is common for attorneys to account for their time down to the tenth of an hour, spokesman Dan Rossmiller said.
"When you talk to them, their clock starts ticking," Ladwig said. "Would you have preferred they hung up on you?"
Travis, a 23-year veteran of the Legislature, said lawmakers have proven incapable of handling redistricting and need a new method.
"This is just like the golden goose for law firms," Travis said.