State Treasurer Dean Martin is criticizing an order by Gov. Jan Brewer to release some illegal immigrants from state prisons 90 days before they would otherwise have to be let go.
Martin, a potential Brewer foe in the GOP gubernatorial primary, said the state should not use its budget crunch as a reason to release inmates before they served their full terms. Instead, he said, the state should make another stab at getting the federal government to pay the bills for their incarceration as already is required by law.
"I don't believe that we should balance this budget by releasing prisoners early," he said.
Martin acknowledged, though, that bills sent to the U.S. Department of Justice for nearly a decade by former Gov. Janet Napolitano - now chief of homeland security - have produced nothing. And Martin, who said he may file a lawsuit as the state treasurer to force Congress to appropriate the funds, conceded the chances of that succeeding are 10 to 1 against.
Still, Martin said, the state ought to try to collect the accumulated bills and interest which, since 1994, top $1 billion.
"The answer is 'no' if you don't pursue it," he said.
Martin denied that Wednesday's press conference was a bid to gain publicity for his 2010 campaign, whether for governor or another term as treasurer.
During the event, though, called to discuss the debt and the letter he sent to Napolitano demanding payment, Martin took a slap at Brewer for her inmate-release plan and Attorney General Terry Goddard, the likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee, for not having sued the federal government for the cash.
But Martin said he never thought about using his position as state treasurer for the last three years to either bill the federal government directly or file suit - at least not until now.
The State Criminal Alien Assistance Program is a federal law requiring that states be reimbursed when people in this country illegally are incarcerated for breaking state laws. But between what presidents have requested in the federal budget and what Congress has approved, states have been paid just pennies on what they are owed.
In a letter last October to President Barack Obama, Jon Kyl and John McCain, the state's two U.S. senators, said Arizona got back just 4 percent of its costs last fiscal year. Yet the senators, working with their counterparts from California, noted that the president has requested no funds at all for SCAAP.
Martin on Wednesday figured the costs to the state since 1994 at nearly $929.5 million, with reimbursement totaling less than $145 million. Martin said that, with accumulated interest, the bill now totals more than $1 billion - close to the current deficit for the current fiscal year.
Brewer, looking for a more immediate solution to the state's cash crunch, last month directed state agencies to cut spending and slow payment of bills where they could.
One of those directives was to the Department of Corrections to turn over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement any illegal inmate who is within 90 days of the date he or she would have to be released anyway.
Some illegal immigrants already are eligible for deportation after completing half of their sentences under a plan the state has used since 2005. But that program is open only to those who have committed minor felonies and are not repeat offenders.
Interim Corrections Director Charles Ryan said this new order affects about 400 inmates who are not eligible for the half-sentence release. By shaving 90 days off their sentence, Ryan said the state would save about $1.9 million between now and July 1.
Martin said Wednesday that's a mistake.
"I don't think we should be doing any early release for anyone who's committed a crime," he said. "Once they've completed their service as required by the court system, then they would be turned over."
The answer, he said, is getting the federal government to pay up.
Nor was Martin dissuaded by the fact that, even by his own admission, the state is unlikely to get the money and the releases are only 90 days early.
Tim Nelson, Goddard's chief deputy, said Martin's criticism of his office for failing to sue is legally off base.
"If there were any way to sue the feds, we would have done it," Nelson said. He said that Congress amended the law requiring the federal government to cover the costs incurred by states in incarcerating illegal immigrants to specifically preclude any state or individual from filing suit for failure to pay.
And a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said Martin is barking up the wrong tree by sending the invoice to Napolitano.
"We advised the state treasurer to take note that the Department of Homeland Security does not have jurisdiction in the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program," he said. Any payments come from the Department of Justice.
Martin conceded the point. But Martin said he figured that Napolitano could use her influence with Attorney General Eric Holder to get more cash.
The chances of Arizona ever getting its full costs covered - much less getting paid for past-due bills - is virtually nil.
An aide to Kyl pointed out that when Congress first approved the program two decades ago it set an "authorized" level of funding of $950 million for the entire nation. Arizona's costs alone of incarcerating illegal immigrants runs close to $100 million a year.
While Obama sought no SCAAP funding this year, Congress did provide $330 million nationwide.