Bob Bernick’s notebook: Republicans using tax money to pay debt from legal fight over SB54

As Utah Republicans fill out their state income tax returns — eyes toward the April 15 filing deadline — they may want to remember that any $2 check-off they make will not go, as usual, to party operations, but now will go to pay off a $210,000 legal bill.

Already, the state GOP has conducted special fundraising of around $90,000 to pay the legal fees of two loyal Republican attorneys who have taken on the SB54 federal and state court battles.

But, says state chairman James Evans, around $210,000 is still outstanding.

That’s not to say that state party leaders will ever raise that much money for their legal fees, for the two attorneys have said they will write off the fees if the money can’t be found.

Still, Evans has raised, and paid, around $90,000 for the lawyers outside of the normal party fundraising apparatus – before the check-off funds are allocated later this year.

In the 2015 income tax year, the State Republican Party received $50,242 from the personal income tax check-off.

However, at a recent State Central Committee meeting, outgoing national committeewoman Enid Greene suggested the income tax check-off donations — $2 per return, if the taxpayer so agrees – should go to the party’s court battles.

And the SCC agreed.

“That decision will be revisited” at some later date, Evans told on Thursday because a number of the county party leaders don’t like giving up some of their funds to pay for the lawsuit.

Out of each $2 donation, $1 used to go to the state party, said Evans, and $1 to the county party where the donor/check-off tax filer lives.

At least that was the case. As of now, all $2 will go to the legal fees.

So, loyal Republicans, if you check off the $2 box on your state income tax return, your two bucks won’t be going to help run your state or county Republican parties or to get Republicans elected, but to the outstanding legal bills for a fight you may or may not support.

Certainly there have been a number of well-known Republicans (including majorities in the Utah House and Senate) who disagreed with the state party’s legal fight over SB54.

I won’t go through all the machinations here.

Suffice it to say, it has torn the Utah GOP apart.

And with the death of SB114 in the 2017 Legislature – an attempt to deal with the plurality issue in party primary elections – there could still be intra-GOP battles ahead.

You may recall that earlier this year the state GOP’s Central Committee at first voted to stop its SB54 appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, then hard-core CC members called for another meeting and reversed the decision, and a new set of attorneys will appeal that litigation for free.

In any case, as the face of the SB54 fight, Evans has announced he’s running for a third, two-year term as chairman – and will stand for that election before 4,500 delegates in the May 20 state convention in the Sandy South Towne Center.

No one else has announced against him.

The SB54 lawsuits and party finances may be part of that race, if someone does step forward to challenge Evans.

He tells that party finances are back on track (several local businesses had complained that their bills to the state party were not paid, or not paid in full or on time).

The party has around $57,000 in debt, says Evans, outside of the legal fees (which the state party doesn’t have to pay, if they don’t want to).

The state convention is, in and of itself, a fundraising event, says Evans. And after the convention, he believes the party will be out of debt.

Evans says, besides the SB54 impact of party fund raising, two items have had an effect:

1) Evans has put into place a severe party budget. Monthly party costs have gone from $22,000 a month to $8,000 – with a number of jobs at party HQ on the corner of South Temple and State Streets being handled now by volunteers.

2) In a presidential year, historically the national Republican Party has sent down big bucks to state parties for voter turnout and other operations.

But the Trump 2016 campaign ran a non-traditional campaign, and the RNC didn’t send down the monies usually seen, said Evans.

Still, Utah GOP costs have been wrestled down.

Evans says even if the income tax check-off continues to be allocated to lawyer fees – and not to state and county party operations – the state party should be out of debt and moving forward after this May.