Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
FILE— Julie Chaffetz looks at her husband, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, as he talks about his resignation at their home in in Alpine on Thursday, May 18, 2017. Between them is their dog, Ruby.

SALT LAKE CITY — With the Utah GOP's debt now topping $500,000, the party's new chairman is counting on delegates to offer "a highly encouraged donation" at the upcoming convention to select a 3rd District congressional candidate.

"If they do it, great. If they don't, we're not going to go out and limit their participation in the future. There's no punishment," Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson said. "It's all voluntary."

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told the party earlier this week that a legal review would be needed to require delegates to pay a fee to attend the June 17 special convention to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, state Elections Director Mark Thomas said.

"Before it got to the (attorney general's) office, we heard the party said they'd make it more of a highly recommended fee," Thomas said. "It's probably fine if they're not going to require a fee."

Delegates have been "really encouraged" to contribute at past conventions, Thomas said, but a mandatory fee is "something that would require further review. I can see why it would give some people pause and why they would see it as a poll tax."

Anderson said he is hoping to raise some $20,000 from the convention where delegates will pick the party's choice to run for the seat being vacated by Chaffetz at the end of the month for a private sector job believed to be with Fox News.

That would require nearly all the more than 1,000 delegates to pay the "suggested amount" — $20 if they register online now or $25 if they wait until the convention.

While he said in an online letter to 3rd District delegates it's "not a mandatory fee, but rather a highly encouraged donation," they can't preregister without paying. Anderson said those who don't want to give will have to register at the convention.

He said in the letter that the party "needs to become more self-reliant" and pointed out that delegates to the May 20 annual state convention gave $1,200 to the party, an average of 50 cents each.

Seeking more money from delegates is a good test of how much grass-roots support the party can expect, Anderson said later. He said he and his wife have been contirbuting $200 a month to the Utah GOP since last fall.

Chaffetz said he is giving $5,000 to the party. And former state GOP Chairman James Evans, who lost his bid for a third term to Anderson, said he has a committment to match up to $15,000 in contributions made at the convention.

Evans said the money is coming from a small group of donors led by Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who backed him in last month's race for party chairman.

"It's an opportunity for a win-win for the party," Evans said.

He said Anderson has so far failed to deliver on a promise to bring back donors who have stopped giving to the party, and "now he's sprung this fee on delegates that's not sitting well."

Anderson said the party's debt continues to grow, including a $34,000 fine by the Federal Elections Commission related to how a corporate donation was handled several years ago.

"Difficult circumstances necessitate difficult choices," he wrote in the letter to delegates, pledging to keep his campaign promises of "restoring fiscal integrity, transparency and accountability to the party."

His letter said he's just learned of $30,000 in unpaid bills from the May convention, on top of $130,000 in other debt and $308,000 owed to lawyers in the party's fight with the state over a controversial law changing the candidate nomination process.

Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the Republican Party is "clearly trying to find ways to get funding flowing." But Perry said the GOP also needs to heal from the legal battle that drove away donors.

"In my opinion, the best way to start the contributions flowing back to the party again is to show unity," he said. "This convention could be one of those times where the state party's sense of strength starts to emerge again."