When Utah’s candidates for governor entered the race, it was during a period of booming economic growth — a time when the state led the nation in job creation and saw its lowest unemployment rate ever recorded, with all signs pointing to a prosperous future.
Then a pandemic hit.
Now, as the Republican gubernatorial hopefuls enter the final stage of the primary campaign ahead of the June 30 election, the state faces a much bleaker economic picture. Unemployment rates are at historically high levels. State revenue has plummeted. And fiscal analysts say it could take the Beehive State as many as three years to fully recover from a deepening recession.
With the potential for tough economic times ahead, three of the four candidates have unveiled plans in recent weeks outlining how they would help businesses, get people back to work and lead the state back to prosperity. And each has been working on the campaign trail to convince Utahns that he’s most capable of navigating these choppy waters.
A recent poll conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University found that there’s a mandate from voters to address these issues, with worries about the economy at the forefront for many Utahns.
Among the 500 likely Republican primary voters who were surveyed, about 51% said the economy was at the top of the list of issues they care most about, compared to 15% who cited police protests and 14% who listed the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s a shift from the beginning of the campaign, when Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said he saw education as a top concern for voters and was focusing his campaign on that issue.
“Certainly that’s what we were talking about everywhere we went three months ago,” he said. “But now it’s all about the economy and making sure we recover quickly.”
Poll respondents were about evenly split when asked whether they were more concerned about their physical health or financial well-being. About 44% pointed to physical health as their bigger concern, while close to 45% said their financial well-being was top of mind. The other 11% said they were undecided.
Suffolk University conducted the poll — which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points — by calling landlines and cellphones from June 4 to 7.
The survey results were unsurprising to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who says they reflect the conversations he’s been having with voters in recent months. And while he says he’s always had a strong economic vision for the state, he calls addressing the economic fallout of the coronavirus his “No. 1 priority” as he seeks his old job once again.
“We’ll have a vaccine in the months ahead,” the candidate noted. After that, he said, the question for Utah’s next governor becomes: “How quickly can we get out of the COVID economic hole that we find ourselves in?”
Utah’s small businesses have been hit particularly hard in recent months by the coronavirus and shutdown measures to help stem its spread. Four out of every five Utahns surveyed have sought financial assistance during the pandemic, and more than a quarter estimate returning to normal will require at least six months.
One of every 14 says that businesses will never return to normal, according to a May survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
To help these small-business owners in the short term, former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright says he would work as governor to reallocate already set-aside economic incentives to support and reduce taxes for businesses that are already here.
“By using the funds set aside for incentives to reduce taxes for all business, we provide relief for businesses already operating in Utah and attract new businesses with our reduced rate,” his plan states. “During these tough economic times, Utah-based businesses should be benefiting from any money that was allocated to economic incentives.”
To “fortify existing Utah companies” and help keep them afloat, Huntsman’s plan calls for working with financial institutions to provide bridge and zero-interest loans, tax-deferment programs and payroll-tax incentives to struggling businesses.
Climbing out of the economic hole the coronavirus has created requires bringing “fresh resources to the marketplace” to support small businesses, startups and entrepreneurs, he said in an interview.
That supports a second and longer-term phase of his economic plan for the state, in which he envisions more than doubling the state’s gross domestic product from $180 billion to $500 billion in the next 10 years by creating an “open-for-business environment” that supports biotechnology, agriculture technology and the finance and defense industries.
As part of that vision, Huntsman wants to initiate a public-private national laboratory to focus on education, manufacturing and agriculture and establish a dedicated fund to produce returns on investment from biotech and bioscience technology.
“They’re industries that will be trillion-dollar industries nationally and are indispensable to our future,” he told The Tribune. “Somebody is going to benefit from the growth and development in these areas. I’m arguing our state has a pretty good start in all three, we just don’t have world-class capabilities just yet.”
Cox, who has played a leading role in Utah’s coronavirus response (much to the chagrin of his fellow candidates), says he’s already working as lieutenant governor on measures to help businesses get back on their feet with the help of unused federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
“We’re working on very targeted relief for those businesses to help them stay open” so the approximately 70% of the workforce who have applied for unemployment and are furloughed have a job to come back to, he said.
In his economic recovery plan, Cox also points to a need for some long-term changes that will “increase Utah’s long-term resilience, minimize dependence on federal funds, and near-source critical supplies.”
To get there, the candidate says his administration would “prioritize in-state manufacturing and commerce, build essential supply chains, and incentivize local business growth by cultivating an economic environment founded on low taxes and fewer regulations.”
Former House Speaker Greg Hughes, who has not released a plan specific to rebuilding the economy, says his approach upon taking office would be much different than the one the Gary Herbert administration has taken.
If a second wave of the coronavirus occurred under his leadership, Hughes said he would not place restrictions on businesses. Instead, he said, he would work to disseminate good public health information and trust people to take proper precautions while keeping the economy moving.
“We cannot continue in this vein,” he said, noting that most of the state is still operating under some kind of restrictions. “I think [the state] needs a hard shift. It needs leadership to say, ‘We have to open our schools.’ We have to understand the vulnerable populations that are at the greatest risk [and] do what we can to push out good information so that people are safe. But we are a young state, and we are a healthy state.”
Investing in the future
In addition to helping businesses, candidates are also placing a primary importance on retraining those who have lost work as a result of the pandemic.
In his plan, Cox puts education at the top of his five principles for revitalizing the economy.
“We must ensure all Utahns can thrive amid rapid change,” he wrote. “That means through targeted up-skill and re-skill opportunities, Utah’s workers will adapt and be armed with a world-class education.”
That could mean a “significant increase” in investment in trade and technical institutions through the state education system, he said in an interview, noting that Utah’s economy has a demand for more skilled labor.
That dovetails with the fifth element of Cox’s plan: creating more diverse employment opportunities for rural Utahns by “encouraging rural business formation, up-skilling rural workers, and enabling more telework.” His administration, he said, would also “prioritize agriculture and ranching to enhance Utah’s food self-sufficiency.”
Huntsman’s plan also highlights the importance of education, noting that the state needs to “accelerate training for Utah workers” and create targeted workforce development programs for people who have lost their jobs and may not see them come back post-pandemic.
“Some of them who maybe are in their 40s or 50s absolutely need a different training for the last part of their working career,” he said in an interview, noting the importance to the economy of “making sure we’ve got the training capabilities to handle those displaced workers.”
Utah’s most recent unemployment report showed 5,452 people had filed for jobless benefits the week ending May 30, roughly 500 more than the previous week.
While the pandemic has created hardships for many, Wright said it could also present an opportunity to plug employment holes in the state by creating an opportunity to provide “critical training” for Utahns who are seeking to enter new industries.
“Currently, Utah has a shortage of teachers, emergency services personnel, mental health professionals, etc,” he said in his plan. “We can use this unfortunate time of crisis to fill these shortages using our state institutions to get Utahns back to work.”
Wright said he would also seek to invest state resources in remote learning opportunities, as well as rural communication needs, to ensure Utahns outside the Wasatch Front have the chance to telework, “regardless of where they live or their economic status.”
On the topic of education, Hughes said the pandemic offers an opportunity to provide better delivery of online education and ensure people all over the state have access to it.
But he also threw cold water on visions of increasing educational opportunities for Utahns, noting that the realities of the economy may be limiting to those plans.
“If we don’t have employment, you don’t have people paying taxes and the income tax is how we’re going to fund our schools,” he said. “Any candidate right now promising raises to teachers and increased investment in our schools, we’ve got to say, ‘How are we going to bridge this gap we see that grows by the day?’ That’s the real conversation.”
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.