During the fifth annual Utah Clean Air Partnership Summit in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night, six of Utah’s Republican candidates for governor outlined their “one big idea” for improving air quality in the state.
Each shared his or her proposal during a one-on-one interview with Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, following remarks from UCAIR Executive Director Thom Carter and outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert that lauded the state’s “significant” progress on clean air over the last few years.
The next governor will have to “be able to tackle the issue on the first day in office,” Carter told a crowd gathered for the summit Wednesday night at The Union Event Center. “We have had a great champion in Gov. Herbert; we want to ensure we don’t lose momentum in January of next year” when the state’s next leader takes office, he added.
To qualify for the forum, gubernatorial hopefuls had to have announced their candidacy or intent to enter the race and created their campaign organization by Feb. 1 and to have raised at least $50,000.
The candidates’ responses here are listed in the random order in which they spoke at the event Wednesday night.
Jon Huntsman Jr.
If elected to the seat again, former Gov. Jon Huntsman said he would set a goal for the state to have a net-zero balance of emissions along the Wasatch Front by 2030.
“Let’s set the bar high,” he said. “Because if you don’t shoot high, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
To achieve that aim, Huntsman said he would work as an “aggregator of talent” to bring the best minds to the table, promote state involvement in transit options and cultivate public-private partnerships for funding.
Huntsman, who served as governor from 2005 to 2009, also expressed support for “bottom-up” solutions to address booming growth in a state that has added 850,000 people since he left office.
“It can never be a top-down mandated thing,” he said, adding that the state’s governor needs to lead conversations with local leaders based on data that looks not 5 or 10 years down the road but 25 or 50.
Aimee Winder Newton
To improve the state’s air quality, Aimee Winder Newton, a Salt Lake County Councilwoman with a background in local government, said she would seek to make people more aware of building emissions, which are expected to overtake vehicle emissions as the No. 1 pollution source in the state by 2050.
“When you buy a new car, you have a sticker that shows the miles per gallon,” she said, arguing that something similar should be made available for new homeowners so that “when people build a new home, they can really see what the performance is going to be.”
Winder Newton also floated the idea of improving public-private partnerships — such as encouraging gas stations to put in electric vehicle charging stations with the idea that those customers would likely boost business by coming inside for a drink or a snack while their car juiced up.
“Another idea for public-private partnerships is getting more employers to issue transit passes to their employees,” she added.
For Provo businessman Jeff Burningham, solutions to air quality are all “about people.”
If elected, the candidate said he would tap entrepreneurs to take up the task, such as by challenging every tech CEO to see how many miles they could reduce from their company every year in exchange for some kind of prize.
The first-time politician argued that “we cannot regulate all the way to clean air” and said he thinks the solutions to air quality will likely come from private innovation — not from big government.
“There are things we can do to incentivize good behavior but really, in my opinion, it is about innovation in the private sector,” he added. “Let’s continue to unlock that; let’s empower our entrepreneurs to do that.”
Burningham also argued for an end to the provision of state tax incentives to businesses who settle in the Wasatch Front, arguing that the promotion of such “artificial growth” exacerbates air quality issues.
Four counties along the Wasatch Front are seeing the “lion’s share” of the state’s population growth, former House Speaker Greg Hughes said during the forum. If elected as governor, he promised he would work to change that.
“The way to handle air quality, scarcity of housing, transportation, congestion failure, is to start investing in the rest of the state and seeing that population growth that will track with the infrastructure and the jobs,” he said.
Hughes said his leadership style on air quality would be to stimulate collaboration, arguing that the state needs a leader who will promote common ground among Utahns to face air quality challenges head-on.
When politicians frame stewardship against the economy or people’s ability to provide for their families, “I think the environment loses in that kind of relationship,” he said.
“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” he added, arguing that he has a track record of bringing people together and would do the same to clean the air.
Former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright said his big idea would be to focus on the little things.
What that means, he said, is that he would use the “bully pulpit” of the governor’s office to encourage individuals to make small steps in their own lives to improve air quality — such as committing to reduce cold starts, carpool more and trip chain — or link multiple vehicle trips together.
If elected, the gubernatorial hopeful said he would use a “pragmatic” approach to bring people together to create a vision for how to clean the air. And he would then use his business background to ensure the state actually sees progress, he said.
“Government a lot of times, unfortunately, focuses on the process and not on the outcomes,” he said. “And in the business world we focus on outcomes and results. And so that’s the perspective I want to bring and the leadership style I want to bring to state government.”
As lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox said he’s already had a chance to work on “all my big ideas,” like promoting a telecommuting initiative for state employees and boosting the prevalence of Tier 3 fuel and electric vehicle charging stations around the state.
But if elected to the state’s top leadership position, Cox said he would focus on something new: the state’s “once in a lifetime opportunity” to redevelop the 700-acre landmass where the state prison will be relocated from in Draper.
While some in the state recoil at conversations around density, there’s a chance to do it “in the right way” there, he said.
“Here’s the kicker, and I’ve been working with the mayor of Draper on this: Having that development be car-less and show the rest of the state we can do this in a really cool way,” he added.
If elected, Cox said his leadership style would be to focus on finding “solutions” to a challenge that he characterized as intersecting with issues from health to education and beyond.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.
Correction: Updated at 8:51 a.m. on Feb. 28 >> A previous version of this story gave an incorrect title for Aimee Winder Newton. She is a Salt Lake County Councilwoman.