Interest groups open check books as court grapples with redistricting

State shutdown
The grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul remain quiet on July 11, 2011, as the state government shutdown continues.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

A court-appointed panel will take public testimony Tuesday evening in Bloomington on the best way to redraw the state's political boundaries, after Gov. Mark Dayton and the GOP-controlled Legislature failed to agree on a plan in the last session.

It's a high stakes affair that is expected to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills, but the public will know little about who's paying those bills. Every state must redraw political maps every 10 years, based on the census. The Legislature and governor are supposed to make legislative and congressional districts equal based on population shifts.

But in Minnesota the political parties are already at an impasse. Dayton earlier this year vetoed a Republican-backed plan. That means the court could step in and draw the political lines.

Republicans and Democrats are using outside groups to raise money to finance the high-priced legal teams that hope to influence the court process. Former state Republican party chairman Chris Georgacas helped organize the group Minnesotans for a Fair Redistricting, which is representing Republican interests.

"We want to make sure that we have a robust fundraising effort to make sure that Republican interests and I think all Minnesotans interests are served in the upcoming legal battles," Georgacas said.

Georgacas formed the group with Republican lobbyist Jack Meeks and GOP fundraiser Steve Knuth. He said the group is independent of the Minnesota Republican Party but consults with the party regarding redistricting. Georgacas said the organization's purpose is to help pay for the two law firms — Briggs and Morgan, and Trimble and Associates — that are working on the redistricting efforts for Republicans. They created the group because of the restrictions federal law puts on political party fundraising, Georgacas said.

"And as a result, it made sense for some of us who are party elders, if you will, to become involved and to be able to provide a mechanism to counter a considerable effort on the Democratic side."

The legal efforts are expected to cost several hundred thousand dollars, Georgacas said. The group can raise money from corporations, business groups and citizens, without having to disclose their donors because of the way it is organized.

"The different between us and the Republicans is that we're doing our work through the party," said Ken Martin, DFL party chair.

Martin intends to disclose how much attorneys Marc Elias and David Lillehaug will be paid for their redistricting work.

Democrats also decline to identify at least some of their donors. That's because the party will take money from a national group called the National Democratic Redistricting Trust. Like the Republican group, the Democratic group doesn't have to disclose donors and can raise unlimited amounts from special interests.

The executive director for the National Democratic Redistricting Trust did not return calls for this report. But the group is reportedly trying to raise at least $12 million for state redistricting efforts. The lack of disclosure concerns some government watchdog organizations who worry special interest groups could try to curry favor with party leaders and lawmakers by writing checks to help with the redistricting fight.

"My fears are that we don't know where this money is and the court doesn't know who is behind these groups," said Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota. "That they're really just front groups in front of the group."

Dean said his group's redistricting efforts are being funded by the Joyce Foundation and that the organization will ask the court to compel the parties to disclose their donors. If the court declines the request, he said Minnesotans may never know who is paying the bills for the legal battle over redrawing Minnesota's political boundaries.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.