In 2007, lawmakers passed the Legal Arizona Workers Act in an attempt to stem the tide of illegal immigration by going after employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. The law provided millions of dollars to county attorneys in Arizona to prosecute such cases.

Two years later, amid a deepening financial crisis, at least $1.44 million is sitting idle, according to interviews and records examined by The Arizona Republic. Prosecutors from nine of the state’s 15 counties say money has accumulated and remains unspent because there have been so few complaints about employers violating the law.

But in Maricopa County, where County Attorney Andrew Thomas has teamed with Sheriff Joe Arpaio to crack down on illegal immigration, nearly all of the $2.86 million provided under the law has been spent.

Thomas has used more than half of the money to pay for 10 staff members, including seven attorneys, to prosecute identity theft and a handful of other crimes related to illegal immigration. He gave the rest to the Sheriff’s Office to investigate alleged violations of the employer-sanctions law, and those funds were used to pay the salaries of six deputies and a sergeant and for leased vehicles for them to drive back and forth to work.

After two years and nearly $5 million in taxpayer money allocated statewide, how the money has been used and the results seem to be a matter of diverse interpretation. The legislation directed county attorneys to use the money to enforce the employer-sanctions law and “any immigration related matters.” Thomas’ interpretation embraced the “immigration related,” as he used the funds to also prosecute human smuggling, kidnapping and weapons violations involving illegal immigration.

Other county attorneys around the state saw the focus as employer sanctions and have spent very little as they have received few complaints or cases to prosecute involving employers. Since the law went into effect Jan. 1, 2008, it has produced:

• Zero lawsuits filed against employers in Arizona.

• More than 300 arrests in Maricopa County, most for identity theft and forgery.

• Arrests of 105 individuals from Maricopa County who were later turned over to the federal government to be deported.

Critics say the law has created an anti-business climate in Arizona, and they question what the state is getting out of the nearly $5 million allocated for enforcement. The U.S. Supreme Court has indicated it is interested in hearing an appeal from business groups that have been trying to have the controversial law thrown out. On Monday, the high court asked the Obama administration to weigh in on the issue before the justices decide whether to take the case. “When a state is facing a $2 billion deficit, should we be spending money on an issue that’s the federal government’s responsibility? Absolutely not,” said Glenn Hamer, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s chief executive. “There are a lot better places the money could be spent in Arizona, including education and health care.”

Thomas said state funding gives him the resources to fight illegal immigration. “There has been more than a 30 percent reduction in the illegal-immigration population in Arizona over the last two years,” said Thomas, citing a Center for Immigration Studies report. “I don’t think it’s coincidental the reduction has occurred right after the employer-sanctions law went into effect.”

The funding, however, could end because of the state’s financial problems. The state has not released the $2.43 million allocation for this year, and a spokesman for the Department of Administration said the funds could be used to help lower the deficit. If no additional money is released, Maricopa County likely would be out of dedicated funds to enforce the employer-sanctions law by mid-January, forcing Thomas and Arpaio to make budget cuts.