Utah’s four Republican candidates debated issues centered on the state’s residents who don’t live along the Wasatch Front for the first ever rural-focused gubernatorial debate Tuesday.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former House Speaker Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright gathered at the V-6 Media Studios in Vernal while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman appeared via video call after one of his staffers tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.

“I had a legislator from the Wasatch Front ask me why he should care about rural Utah,” Cox said. “I said, ‘I can’t think of any reason, unless you care about your food, your water, your energy or recreation.’”

Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties now account for 80% of the state’s population. The candidates were asked whether the growth along the Wasatch Front could drown out the voices of legislators and leaders from Utah’s other 25 counties.

“Now that the Wasatch Front is growing out of proportion, we have no choice but to look for other areas for affordable housing, economic expansion and other opportunities," Huntsman said. “People today are going to look for economic diversification and quality-of-life improvements like never before... I want to capture that for our rural communities.”

County commissions from all over Utah submitted questions to gauge how the candidates would approach topics most pertinent to them.

Cox, who is from Fairview and commutes 200 miles each day to Salt Lake City, said that he would be the first governor to add a rural chief of staff to his cabinet and would have a geographically diverse cabinet. He said that his experience growing up in Fariview would make him the most qualified representative for rural communities.

Hughes mentioned a study by the University of Utah that projected Utah’s population will double by 2050, and said that railways, roads, water and fiber optic infrastructure in rural areas will be key for the future prosperity of the state’s economy. The House speaker also said that having Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson as his running mate would help him connect with communities outside of the Wasatch Front.

All four candidates agreed that the Utah Inland Port distribution hub could pay huge dividends for rural economies. They were also all in favor of diverting water from the Colorado River to provide water for Washington County with the Lake Powell pipeline. The candidates also pledged to help build out railroads that would make it easier to get fossil fuels to other markets available via the Gulf of Mexico.

Huntsman said that fossil fuels and natural gas produced in Uintah County could act as “an economic engine” for the state in the future.

The state’s COVID-19 response was also brought up in the discussion. Cox commended the state’s response, saying Utah’s fatality rate was one of the lowest in the country even though the state was one of seven that did not issue a statewide lockdown.

For Hughes, determining which businesses were essential was not something the government should have decided. Huntsman “was not comfortable” with all of the shutdowns, while Wright thought local leaders should have had more of a role in deciding what was deemed essential.

The candidates also discussed payments in lieu of taxes (PILT), which are federal payments made to local governments intended to offset losses in property taxes on nontaxable federal lands. For counties like Daggett, where 90% of the land is federally owned, the payments would often come back far short of what the land would have accrued in property taxes.

“We’ve sadly said that PILT should actually stand for ‘Pennies in Lieu of Trillions,’" Hughes said. “The payment doesn’t even come close. If the federal government is going to keep that land and not let it be managed by the state, then it needs to step up and start paying what that land is actually valued at.”

Wright said that he wants to ask rural communities what the state government can do for them. He said that he “believes in the underdog” and wants to establish a personal connection with rural communities to prevent them from falling behind as the Wasatch Front grows.

“For 16 years, my opponents have been serving in state government. If you believe that rural Utah is getting its fair share and you’re satisfied with the way things are going, then you have three great options,” Wright said. “But if in the other hand you’re frustrated, and you think you could be doing better ... then Thomas Wright is the person to vote for.”

Utah’s Republican gubernatorial primary election will be held on June 30.

Editor’s Note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board.