Utah Republican Party switches gears again, saying it will continue lawsuit against SB54 — without ‘paying another dime’

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Republican Party chairman Rob Anderson speaks during the State Central Committee meeting at the Park City Library Saturday, November 4, 2017.

Division among Utah Republicans appeared near breaking point Saturday as factions within the party fought over a state elections law and legal challenge that has created a mountain of debt.

The party has about $25,000 in the bank and $423,000 in bills, an accountant told more than 100 members of the Utah Republican Party Central Committee at a meeting in Park City.

Much of the debt was created by legal bills from two law firms representing the party in an ongoing legal challenge over SB54, a 2014 law that dictates how candidates can make it to the ballot. Donations to the party have dried up as a result, officials said.

Citing the massive amount of debt and possibility of a ballot initiative that would further take control of elections out of the party’s hands, central committee members voted to allow the lawsuit to continue so long as the party doesn’t continue paying for it.

The move to strip funding is largely symbolic, as the parties in the lawsuit have already made oral arguments to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and are awaiting a ruling. But committee members considered it a compromise that will — at least temporarily — subdue divisions over SB54 and allow them to see whether the party loses again in court.

“Not everyone got what they wanted,” said Aimee Winder Newton, a Salt Lake County Councilwoman and member of the party’s central committee. “The party is not paying another dime in the lawsuit.”

The vote means the party won’t drop its lawsuit, as Chairman Rob Anderson and other members of a budget committee sought Wednesday to do with a committee vote.

Anderson said the party’s ongoing support of the lawsuit is fueling support of a ballot initiative known as Count My Vote, which would move the state toward a direct primary system and away from the hybrid system created by SB54. Polling commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune shows Utahns are evenly split over the proposed initiative.

Anderson also said donors were disinterested with giving the party money while it actively fought SB54 in court, which he said crippled his ability to fundraise and close the debt gap. The party has an outstanding bill of about $330,000. All told, legal fees total more than $400,000 so far.

“Count My Vote is out there,” Anderson told committee members. “They’re gathering signatures. Their Achilles heel is our lawsuit.”

Shortly after the meeting, Count My Vote said it would press on.

“It’s time to move beyond divisiveness and become unified on Utah’s election process,” the campaign said in a statement. “It is clear that the People of Utah should decide how they choose candidates for elected office, and that their unified voice must be heard.”

Some of the divisions among Republicans were apparent during the largely tense meeting. Several members sought to censure Anderson and other top party leaders for the attempt at backing out of the lawsuit.

Some said the move, to be binding, should have been approved by the central committee. Layne Beck called the budget committee vote “a parliamentary trick” to circumvent the central committee, which also was divided over the lawsuit during its September meeting.

Anderson, however, has previously said he has authority to end the lawsuit because party bylaws say he can “take any and all actions necessary to make sure that the party does not have a deficit situation longer than six months.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Republican Party Central Committee members pray during the State Central Committee meeting at the Park City Library Saturday, November 4, 2017.

At one point, when some called for a vote to reprimand Anderson and others, the group took a short break. Several went to another room to pray.

While staving off a censure vote, Anderson said he planned to appeal to legislators, some of whom sat in the auditorium as members of the central committee, to tweak the law they created during the next legislative session.

“My question to the people who are adamantly in favor of [the lawsuit]: What do you intend to gain out of this?” Rob Chamberlain, of Summit County, asked after the vote. “The bill obviously is a compromise. We need to be able to live with compromise.”

Anderson, meanwhile, said even if the party doesn’t incur costs ahead of the federal court’s decision, there would be far more legal costs in the future if the party wins and the case is sent back to state court.

“The state is going to appeal every decision out of that because that’s what they do on salary,” he said. “You’re looking at increased costs ... you’re looking at loss of donations.”

Meanwhile, he said, the central committee spent the bulk of its meeting bickering and hasn’t begun talking about official business, like next year’s elections.

“We’re going to have to get back to the party’s business,” Anderson said. “Legislators out there want to know what to expect for elections next year.”