Utah wants to host a 2020 presidential debate, and taxpayers have already chipped in $2.5M to help make it happen

(Steve Griffin / Tribune file photo) Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, right, debates with Democratic challenger Charlene Albarran during the Utah Debate Commission's 2nd Congressional District showdown at the KUED studios on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City Tuesday October 4, 2016. State lawmakers awarded $2.5 million to the Utah Debate Commission with the aim of hosting a presidential debate in 2020.

The final list of budget items approved last week by lawmakers included $2.5 million for the Utah Debate Commission, intended to help lure a presidential debate to the Beehive State in 2020.

Nena Slighting, commission executive director, said Thursday that it is not yet known what the full cost would be if Utah is selected to host a debate, but she said the event is intended to be funded through a combination of public and private dollars.

“There will most likely be a request again [for state funding] next year, if selected,” Slighting said.

Utah is bidding for one of four televised general election debates sponsored and produced by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. The plan calls for three events with the major party nominees for president and one debate with their vice presidential running mates.

In 2016, a Republican debate scheduled to take place in Utah was canceled after then-candidate Donald Trump declined to participate. Trump at the time said he had a conflicting speaking engagement and was tired of the debate format, but his decision was described as a “snub” by Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

The Utah Debate Commission is working in partnership with the University of Utah for the 2020 bid, with the expectation that a debate would be held at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. In a prepared statement, U. Vice President of Government Relations Jason Perry said the school is well-positioned to host a large-scale event such as a 2020 presidential debate.

“If we were to be selected," Perry said, "it would offer Utah students a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity.”

Commission co-chairman Thomas Wright said the panel, the U. and state leaders have worked in solidarity to submit the state’s bid for a debate.

“If selected," he said, “Utah would have an incredible opportunity to showcase to the world its citizens’ values of volunteerism, hospitality, civil political discourse and community and civic engagement.”

During the final House debate on the state budget last week, Murray Democratic Rep. Karen Kwan asked for clarification on the Utah Debate Commission line item, with Hurricane Republican Rep. Brad Last confirming the $2.5 million would be used to bid for and potentially host a presidential debate in 2020.

Kwan contrasted that expense of taxpayer dollars with the Legislature’s decision to provide no state funding for the 2020 census, which has seen lawsuits and criticisms against the federal government alleging the decennial count of U.S. residents is underfunded and insufficiently supported.

“If we have an undercount,” Kwan said, “it can impact all of our planning as well as the federal dollars that come in.”

Slighting referred most questions regarding the potential debate to a “frequently asked questions” statement posted to the commission’s website. She said relatively few specifics about the selection process, timeline, cost and logistics for the event are currently known.

“We want everyone to be updated on the process,” she said. “But at this point that’s kind of where things stand.”

Slighting was also unable to comment on what would be done with the $2.5 million in taxpayer funding if Utah’s bid is rejected.

“I don’t have the information on that at this point,” she said.