Let's get court ruling on presidential primary

County officials across the state have joined Beaufort County election officials in objecting to bearing any costs for the Republican Party presidential primary.

The state Election Commission maintains that it has been directed to run the primary and points to Attorney General Alan Wilson's advisory opinion stating it has the statutory authority to do so.

One solution is for the state to pick up the full tab for local governments and send the bill to the state Republican Party.

Matt Moore, executive director of the Republican Party, told The Greenville News that the parties can pay the costs as long as the state runs the primaries.

"Whatever they invoice us for, we're happy to pay it," Moore said.

But that probably won't satisfy officials who disagree with the attorney general's take on the issue and who don't see a guarantee that the state Election Commission and the party will have enough money to cover all of the costs.

The GOP and the Election Commission say the primary will cost between $1.3 million and $1.5 million; state budget provisions make available about $1.1 million for the presidential primary, up from the estimated $680,000 when the budget was passed.

But some officials say the cost could run as high as $2.5 million when local expenses are included, and the State Election Commission has agreed to reimburse them for only a portion of their costs.

Beaufort County elections director Scott Marshall reported to County Council on Sept. 12 that the county absorbed $154,138 in expenses for the 2008 Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, according to meeting minutes..

The Democratic Party is not expected to hold a primary in 2012, but state party officials recognize that might not be the case in the future.

State Democratic Party Chairman Dick Hartpootlian says the state should pay for presidential primaries. They are high profile and bring money into the state.

Even if that's true, we have enough of a legal muddle here -- the attorney general's opinion notwithstanding -- that clarity is called for. Having some counties opt out of the primary doesn't seem a good solution for voters.

What to do? Spartanburg County Council has voted to file a lawsuit to settle the issues. The counties collectively should take it to court. Perhaps they could spread the cost through the South Carolina Association of Counties, which has indicated it would file a brief in support of the counties. The counties might come out ahead, despite the legal costs, if they get a guarantee of full reimbursement.

If the court rules the law isn't there to support the state's staging the presidential primary or spending public money for it, the state Republican Party would have to find the money or manpower or both to do it unless lawmakers change the law.

Lawmakers would have to move relatively quickly. The state GOP announced Monday that its presidential primary date has moved to Jan. 21 to get ahead of Florida's Jan. 31 primary. The 2012 legislative session starts Jan. 10, but the legislature could be called back in for a budget matter such as this under its adjournment resolution.

Whatever happens this election cycle, lawmakers should clear up any ambiguities about legal authority and who pays for presidential primaries; 2016 will be here before we know it.