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S.C. high court hears arguments over how to finance GOP primary

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- With just over two months until South Carolina’s presidential primary, the state Supreme Court has yet to decide if counties must help cover the cost of conducting the election.

The Supreme Court today heard arguments in a lawsuit, brought by four South Carolina counties, claiming that the South Carolina Republican Party should cover the entire cost of conducting the 2012 primary election.

Until 2008, the primaries here were considered private affairs, funded by state parties. But during 2008’s wide-open primary, the legislature approved a law authorizing the use of taxpayer funds for the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.

The counties, who say they were left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses that weren't reimbursed, fear that they’ll once again be left with a large bill in 2012. They contend that the 2008 law does not apply to subsequent primaries.

But state Attorney General Alan Wilson has said that two provisions in the current budget expressly allow the state election commission to use state funds for the 2012 election.

Joel Collins, the lawyer for the four counties, argued today that the two provisions do not mandate that the counties must accept the funds and that assuming otherwise “leapfrog[s] over into a result that wreaks great prejudice onto the counties.”

The election commission has set aside $680,000 for the Jan. 21st primary, and the state Republican Party plans on raising $1 million through candidates’ $35,000 filing fees and fundraising events.

Defending the use of public funds today were lawyers for both the South Carolina Republican and Democratic parties, a combination that the judges called an “unholy alliance.”

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly said the teamwork demonstrated the strength of his party’s position.

“Other than the fact that we like Clemson football, me and [S.C. Democratic Party Chairman] Dick Harpootlian don’t agree on much,” Connelly said. “But to have him in there sitting in the room with me and his attorney’s arguing the point as well, it shows you that the Republican and the Democrat parties of South Carolina are committed to free and fair and impartial elections and access for everyone.”

But Collins said he wasn’t going to speculate on the decision.

“I’ve been doing this for 43 years and I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t predict what the jury’s going to do or what the court’s going to do,” Collins said.

State law requires public notice of elections be posted at least 60 days before the vote, meaning the court must make its decision by November 22nd.