In a bid to encourage young people to volunteer in their communities, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Cooke proposed a pair of policies aimed at rewarding those who serve in their neighborhoods.
Cooke, speaking at a news conference at This Is the Place Monument on the eve of Pioneer Day, said he would urge school districts to give young people credit toward high school graduation if they participate in a service learning program.
He also proposed a program to help college graduates pay off their student loans if they volunteered time in their communities.
"These are initiatives I will undertake as governor to instill the pioneer value of service into 21st-century Utah," Cooke said. "It's time to exhibit the pioneer spirit of service today. It's time to put our shoulders to the wheel."
Cooke said the program to help repay college loans, similar to the Americorps program at the federal level, would be funded by voluntary donations from businesses.
Gov. Gary Herbert's campaign said the governor supports volunteerism and said Utahns volunteer 162 million hours of service every year, more than residents of any other state.
"Helping graduates pay down their student loans is important," said campaign spokesman Marty Carpenter. "Rather than encouraging a spirit of entitlements and government programs, Gov. Herbert feels the best way to do that is to build an economy in which graduates can find work and begin to build their financial futures."
Cooke, a retired two-star general, said he set up a similar program with Zions Bank, which agreed to give returning veterans an internship and help with the transition back into civilian life.
Cooke said he hasn't spoken with Zions executives about it, but CEOs he has spoken with like the idea, and he thinks it could help ease the strain on students who have seen the Utah workforce shrink from 1.4 million in 2008 to less than 1.3 million today.
"[We] lost these 100,000 jobs and people decided to go back to school and accumulate these huge loans, hoping they can get out and get a better job, and they're not," he said. "[We] think this is a great solution."
If elected, Cooke said he would also create two sets of awards recognizing exemplary community service among the business community and Utah residents in each county.
He would also urge school districts to add a requirement to the civics curriculum emphasizing community service.
Cooke said his hope is that all of those things can reverse Utah's declining voter participation rate and help build community pride.