COLUMBIA -- South Carolina county leaders are in revolt and threatening legal action, saying the state plans to leave them to pick up part of the tab for their first-in-the-South presidential primary.
And the state's county association said Monday that courts need to decide whether counties or the state even have the legal authority to conduct the primary Republicans brag has been a must-win for every GOP hopeful since 1980 who has claimed the nomination.
"There is no statutory authority for the State Election Commission to order a county election commission to conduct a presidential preference primary," said Bob Lyons, chief counsel of the South Carolina Association of Counties.
Lyons said it may be up to the state Supreme Court to decide whether a law that only set up taxpayer funding for the 2008 presidential primary can be interpreted to authorize the 2012 contest, which is scheduled for February.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson has issued a nonbinding legal opinion saying the said the old statute gives the Election Commission authority to run the primary.
Lyons and local election officials said the opinion doesn't give authority to run the primary.
"I don't know of any attorney general's opinion that's binding," said Scott Marshall, executive director of the Beaufort County Board of Elections & Registration.
State Republicans aren't worried about a legal challenge and candidates shouldn't fret over the new fight, either, said Matt Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party. "We think we win any challenge," Moore said.
Moore said the party will pick up the county costs and is waiting for the State Election Commission to tally what they'll be. "We've told the Election Commission that we'll reimburse all costs associated with the primary," Moore said.
State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said the costs will be picked up by the commission and money collected by the state Republican Party. He expects the primary will cost about $1.3 million. The state has about $680,000 for the primary and will be the GOP for the balance. Whitmire said the money will cover most expenses, including postage, programming machines and hiring poll workers.
On Monday, Greenville County's elections board asked the county council to take whatever action is needed.
Greenville County elections director Conway Belangia said he would have to foot at least $25,000 in bills, including the labor bill for testing machines and ballots. Are they going to expect he counties to just step up to the table and absorb these costs?" Belangia asked.
In Beaufort County, Marshall said the unreimbursed amounts include moving machines to polling places and repairing them. "These machines don't magically appear at polling locations," Marshall said. "There are a lot more expenses than what the Election Commission is sharing," Marshall said.
He estimates Beaufort County taxpayers alone would be on the hook for about $50,000.
In Spartanburg County, where a lawyer has been hired to look at legal challenges, elections executive director Henry Laye said the tab could be $20,000, including staff overtime. Last week, Spartanburg County Council Chairman Jeff Horton said he didn't intend to hold a primary if the state wasn't covering the costs.