Utah’s GOP gubernatorial candidates meet in first forum of the race

(Bethany Rodgers | The Salt Lake Tribune) Six Republican candidates for Utah governor discuss the state's economic outlook during a forum at an annual economic summit hosted by St. George Area Economic Development in St. George on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020.

St. George • Six Republicans vying to become Utah’s next governor appeared together Thursday for the first forum of the campaign season in a discussion that differentiated the candidates more on personal history than on policy.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox introduced himself to the St. George crowd as the “only candidate on the stage who lives south of the Payson-Dixon Line” and the lone competitor capable of bridging the divide between rural and urban Utah.

Provo businessman Jeff Burningham highlighted his outsider status, saying Utah needs a governor who’s an entrepreneur not a politician. Former Gov. Jon Huntsman harkened back to accomplishments from when he last held the top executive post, while Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton noted her experience as a local legislator, small business owner and mother.

These four candidates, along with former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, all agreed that the coming election will be a defining one for Utah — determining who will lead the state through a period of rapid growth and significant challenge.

“I’m looking at some things that have me a little concerned,” Winder Newton told a crowd of hundreds at the Dixie Center. “Are our kids ready for the workforce? Do they even know which jobs exist in Utah? Will our grandkids and our children be able to afford homes? Or will the prices of homes keep them in our basement?”

The roughly 70-minute panel discussion was organized by the St. George Area Economic Development as part of its annual economic summit and focused on the state’s business outlook and Utah’s forecast population boom.

Planning for growth

Wright said providing affordable housing will be a key piece of preserving quality of life as the state grows.

“We have a housing crisis, and prices of homes are rising faster than incomes, and people just flat-out can’t afford it,” he said.

If elected governor, Winder Newton said she would restore a planning component back to the governor’s office to assist local leaders in dealing with development. Huntsman agreed that growth policies should be informed by communities rather than mandated by the state’s top officials.

“Here’s the simple mathematical formula that’s important for success: You’ve got to have brainpower and people. You’ve got to have a competitive environment. And you have to have access to capital,” he said. “And we can maintain that secret sauce so long as we maintain our quality of life.”

Linking Utah’s oil and coal with global markets could accelerate the state’s economy, Hughes argued.

“I’m not looking at the end of those industries,” he said. “I’m looking at yellow, waxy crude that is the lowest sulfur you can find anywhere.”

Cox advocated for steering growth to the right places. The lieutenant governor said he’s tired of seeing the state hand out economic incentives to companies moving onto the Wasatch Front, where jobs already abound.

“We’re giving these big incentives to add to the pollution, to add to the traffic, to take our talent away from existing businesses,” he said. “What we should be doing is working with our local leaders here to find out those gaps that are missing, to incentivize companies to grow here and elsewhere in rural Utah.”

Burningham said as a businessman, he can bring a depth of insight about how to keep the state’s economy on an upward trajectory.

“Economic development is not theoretical to me,” he said. “It is what I have devoted my life and career to.”

Women in business and government

In response to a question about encouraging women in business and government, Cox began by acknowledging his party’s shortcomings in that area. But change starts at an individual level, he argued, pointing out that he hired a female chief of staff to assist him in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

"Those are the types of changes that we have to make," he said.

His office has also been working with the governor to propose providing paid maternity leave for state employees in the coming budget year, he said.

Filling boardrooms and elected seats with women will inspire the next generation, Burningham said.

"You can't be what you can't see," he said. "So women need to see tech women. Women need to see CEOs. Women need to see candidates like Aimee right up here onstage."

Winder Newton said supervisors and voters alike should choose the most qualified candidate for a job, irrespective of gender. But she said society can foster female participation in other ways — by prioritizing family-friendly business policies, ensuring equal access to business capital and creating mentorship opportunities.

Hughes talked about removing some of the barriers that he saw his mother and grandmother encounter as working women.

“I just want a workplace and an opportunity, regardless of gender, that identifies the best talent, empowers people and doesn’t get into identity politics,” the former House speaker said.

Lake Powell pipeline

There was unanimous support among the candidates for construction of the proposed $1 billion-plus Lake Powell pipeline.

Despite concerns over the cost of the massive project, the candidates said building the pipeline is vital to continued growth in southern Utah. They also argued it would be foolish to leave the water untapped — predicting that other states would claim the water if Utah doesn’t do so first.

"I don't know about you, but I don't want to give up the water that's rightfully ours," Wright said.

The 140-mile line would divert 86,000 acre-feet of the Colorado River across southern Utah each year to Sand Hollow Reservoir to feed the burgeoning St. George metro area.

As for the expense, Huntsman talked about “bringing together the financing that the state is obviously going to have to make available,” while Winder Newton suggested looking at a user fee system to help pay for the pipeline. If St. George continues to thrive, Burningham contended, “the funding will work out.”

Tax reform

The candidates all raised objections to the tax overhaul bill passed last month in the Legislature, although they differed in what they found problematic and who they believed was to blame.

Along with several other candidates, Cox disagreed with increasing the sales tax on food and said trimming government spending should always come before imposing tax hikes. Burningham offered a similar perspective, arguing that the government has a spending problem rather than a revenue problem.

The length and complexity of the bill came up in several of the candidates’ responses, with Hughes and Winder Newton suggesting Gov. Gary Herbert was partly at fault for not leading the public outreach effort on tax reform. And Winder Newton called for more fair decision-making when choosing which service-based businesses should fall under the sales tax.

"Not have it based on who has the best lobbyist," Winder Newton said.

Wright said the urgent call for tax restructuring seemed to come from left field, after years of hearing that Utah was the best-managed state in the nation.

“Suddenly we were told this year that we have all these intractable problems with our tax code,” he said, vowing that he’d lead regular reviews of the state’s tax law if elected governor.

Huntsman noted that it took his administration two years to build consensus around a reform plan that instituted a flat income tax in Utah and cut the sales tax rate on groceries. The public was integral to that process, reviewing and debating each aspect of it, he said.

"And because of that, what was the vote?" he said. "It was 100%. We got every Republican and every Democrat to vote for our tax reform package."

In last month’s special session, 27 representatives and seven senators voted against the reform package.

Several of the gubernatorial candidates have lined up behind an attempt to repeal the legislation by putting it on the ballot in November.

Editor’s note: Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, Tribune owner and publisher.