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South Carolina still must pay $500,000 for GOP primary

With all efforts aimed at the Jan. 21 "first-in-the-South" presidential primary, county elections officials are still waiting to see if they will absorb the $500,000 the state still needs to cover costs. State election officials said last week that's not likely.

The state has $850,000 of elections money that rolled over from the previous budget and $180,000 the South Carolina Republican Party has pledged to put toward the primary, estimated to cost $1.5 million, said Chris Whitmire with the South Carolina Election Commission.

The remaining money will hopefully come from funds budgeted for June's primaries for local, state, and Congressional races, Whitmire said.

The $3.8 million request for the June primaries reflects a "worst-case scenario," he said. Elections officials said they will need between $3.3 million and $3.5 million to cover costs of the June primaries..

When the Legislature returns to session, the commission will ask for permission to use the money they anticipate they won't need in June.

"We'll also work to limit expenses associated with the June primaries and ask counties to do the same," he said.

The easiest way to cut costs is not hiring the maximum number of poll workers allowed in each precinct. State officials will ask the counties "to use their own judgment in only appointing the number of poll managers that are necessary," he said.

If legislators don't approve the request, the commission will have to go to the state Budget and Control Board to request permission to run a deficit.

The goal is not to saddle counties with expenses they weren't anticipating, Whitmire said.

"We expect to meet our obligation and that's our intention," he said.

"Wanda Hemphill, director of York County registration and elections, said the news from the state board is reassuring.

The amount York County needs is $55,000 - that's what elections officials would typically expect the state to reimburse, Hemphill said.

That figure doesn't include expenses for postage, printing, truck rentals, mileage and other costs of running the state's primary or any election.

Those expenses, totaling several thousand dollars, are never reimbursed, Hemphill said.

Money is available to cover the primary, Hemphill said, but it would reduce funds available for June's elections.

"All along I've just tried to be hopeful that necessary funds would be appropriated in order to cover the reimbursement," she said. "You always feel a lot better with actual confirmation...and actual funds in hand."

Now Hemphill - and election officials in other counties - may have a more comfortable wait to see if the legislative committee approves the commission's request.

"I'm hoping that our legislators see that the counties have also been on very tight budgets and it could very negatively from a financial standpoint impact the counties."

Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, sits on the joint committee that will decide whether to approve the commission's request.

He said the commission's plan is reasonable, especially if it means trimming the June primaries' budget.

"We certainly don't want them running a deficit. Anything that allows them to utilize the funding especially if they're going to come in under budget is better than running a deficit," Simrill said.

Settling who will pay

Until 2008 South Carolina was the only state in the nation in which political parties paid for their own primaries and caucuses. In 2007 the Legislature approved a plan allowing state tax dollars to pay for both party's primaries with the state election commission overseeing both. Then-Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed the 2007 bill but lawmakers overrode the veto.

That was a good move, Simrill said.

The presidential preference primaries are open, meaning anyone can vote in them. As the first in the South, it draws media and campaigns to the state and thrusting the South Carolina into a national spotlight.

Allowing county elections offices to handle the primary also ensures fairness, he said.

Last year, the state Legislature added money in the budget to pay for the primaries, but Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed all but the funds which rolled over from past elections, questioning whether the state was legally required to pay for the primary.

The state Republican Party then pledged to help the counties make up the remaining costs when the counties filed a lawsuit claiming they shouldn't be forced to conduct the primary at taxpayers' expense.

The state Supreme Court ruled in December that the state and counties were obligated to run the primaries. Now, the state Republican Party has agreed to pay $180,000 it received from candidate filing fees, but no more, leaving a deficit of $500,000.

GOP should pay more

Matt Moore, executive director of the state Republican Party, said Thursday that the decision was settled in December when the Supreme Court made its ruling.

"We are fully focused on the Jan. 21 primary and the Jan. 16 debate," Moore said.

Glenn McCall, York County GOP chairman, said the party had said prior to the court ruling that it would help fund the primary.

"The Supreme Court sided with us, and what we've always said is that we didn't really want to pay anything," he said. "We were planning to (pay) if we had to pay for it."

He blamed the counties for taking the matter to court. Now it's the Legislature's responsibility to allocate the money, he said, adding that it's "a great example" of a loser-pay system.

One positive outcome of the court ruling, Whitmire said, is future clarity in what was a murky law heading into 2012.

"It's an obligation to us," he said.

Not everyone is ready to move on.

Regardless of how the court ruled, the Republican Party agreed to help pay for the primaries and should pay more beyond the $180,000, Simrill said.

"A deal is a deal," he said. "I don't want the taxpayers being stuck with the bill. It's incumbent upon us to work out an agreement where both sides are OK with how much funding comes in."

Carlisle Roddey, Supervisor for Chester County, one of the counties that sued the state Republican Party, said the GOP is stepping on the counties, which face their own fiscal problems.

"Somebody's got egg on their face, and it's not us," Roddey said. "It's like me throwing a party and expecting somebody to pay for it for me."