Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, suggests a novel way to pay for the state’s ongoing legal battle to ban same-sex marriage: Allow taxpayers to donate part of their income tax refund for it.
His HB48 would create a check-off on forms for a "Marriage Defense Fund." It would also allow direct donations to the fund via cash, check or credit card — and would direct the state to conduct a marketing campaign to help raise money.
This check-off would be a bit different than most of the efforts that taxpayers may choose to help fund on forms now, including the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Utah Nongame Wildlife Account or the Pamela Atkinson Homeless trust fund.
"I see it as a way to placate proponents of same-sex marriage who have complained about the cost" to taxpayers for the state’s ongoing appeals to defend Amendment 3, said Nelson, an attorney for Kirton McConkie, whose clients include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I see it as a peacekeeping measure.... I see this as a way to placate both sides."
He added, "I’ve had several individuals and groups tell me they would like to donate to the cause. It’s a way for them to show their support." Besides the tax form check-off, the bill would allow direct contributions to the fund by "cash, credit card or check."
The bill also would direct the state to "develop and maintain a marketing program to promote the fund."
Gay rights groups don’t like the legislation.
"It sounds disingenuous," said Kent Frogley, vice chairman of the Utah Pride Center board. "It makes it sound like same-sex marriage is an attack on traditional marriage. What we are seeking is equality in marriage."
He dislikes that donations would go to a "Marriage Defense Fund." But, Frogley said, "I would love it if it said [on tax forms] that it was going to fight against marriage equality."
Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, said the legislation would only work to fuel controversy.
"Currently, the question of marriage equality in Utah is in the hands of the courts, and Equality Utah believes our state is best served by following the process and allowing the courts to do their job," she said. "There are many proposed bills this session that seek to address different points of this issue, and the result seems to be a greater division among Utahns."
House and Senate leaders said Tuesday that they decided after discussions with the attorney general’s office that it would be wise to put most bills dealing with same-sex marriage on hold this session, hoping not to interfere with ongoing legal battles. But House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said that Nelson’s bill was not specifically discussed.
Nelson said that since his bill does not address marriage policy — but focuses instead on how to help pay for the state’s ongoing legal battles — he hopes that it can move forward.
The Utah attorney general’s office recently announced it hired Gene Schaerr — an attorney with vast experience in handling appeals in federal courts — to lead a team of attorneys in the state’s defense of its constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Schaerr has agreed to offer his services at a discounted rate and will cap the fee arrangement at $200,000 for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals phase of the proceedings. The attorney also has been hired as a fellow, responsible for writing policy papers, for the Sutherland Institute. The think tank has been a vocal critic of the federal court ruling striking down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban and U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby as an activist judge.
Nelson said he believes the fund he hopes to create could cover much, if not all, of the state’s appeal costs.
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