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August 29, 2015

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Political Memo:

No sunshine on costs of redistricting

It has been repeated ad nauseam over the past year as lawmakers have debated redrawing legislative boundaries: Redistricting is the most political endeavor lawmakers ever undertake.

It’s also an expensive one. But it’s money well spent if you’re a partisan politician because redistricting is, at its core, a battle over which party will control the political landscape for the next decade.

In Nevada, and in more than half the states, the political fight has spilled out of the legislatures and into the courts.

So who’s paying to wage this court fight? Voters will likely never know.

In a decision last year that resulted in a stunning lack of transparency on the money behind the redistricting court fights nationwide, the Federal Elections Commission allowed Democrats to create a trust to raise unlimited funds from donors whose names won’t have to be disclosed.

That fund, the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, pays for Washington, D.C., elections lawyer Marc Elias to argue the Democrats’ redistricting case in Carson City. Elias is a nationally known lawyer who led the legal fight in the Minnesota recount that eventually put Al Franken in the U.S. Senate.

Republicans aren’t any more transparent. The state party, with the help of consultant Mike Slanker, organized an entity called Fund for Nevada’s Future to raise money for the party’s lawyers. According to documents filed with the Secretary of State, the entity is registered as a domestic nonprofit corporation, which would never have to disclose its donors.

Slanker, the fund’s director and treasurer, said they also organized a political action committee, which would fall under the state’s campaign disclosure rules.

Transparency on the Republicans’ fundraising will depend on which entity they used to raise funds.

“We have not filed a report because we have not needed to yet,” Slanker said. “We will file contributions and expenses at year’s end.”

National Republicans also are raising money through federal nonprofit entities that aren’t required to disclose the source of their funds.

Nevada Democrats appear to be piecing together financing for their legal team — which includes Nevada lawyers Bradley Schrager and Matt Griffin — using state party dollars and funds from the national trust.

Las Vegas lawyer Mark Hutchison has been arguing the GOP case.

So far, neither side has been willing to estimate how much the lawyers are costing.

The New York Times reported 28 states have redistricting cases pending in state courts.

Democrats have been planning for these fights for two years, launching their trust shortly after Republicans’ sweeping statehouse victories in 2010 put them in charge of most redistricting fights across the country.

“This is a massive effort,” one Democratic source said. “We (Nevada) are a very small component in a very large operation.”

Transparency advocates rail against the FEC ruling that allowed Democrats to raise money from secret donors.

Despite the fact that redistricting will influence the outcome of elections for the next decade, the FEC found that redistricting is not an effort to influence a specific federal election. The commissioners ignored statements by their own lawyers that redistricting is “the most important legislative activity in the electoral lives of U.S. House members.”

“The courts and Congress both have held for decades that writing huge checks to public officials can corrupt public officials,” said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C.,-based Campaign Legal Center, which opposed the FEC ruling. “This entails allowing huge checks to be written to political parties. The threat of corruption is there. We’ve had laws on the books for decades to limit that threat and all that was thrown out the window.”

Correction: This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Marc Elias’s name.

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