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While it’s still very early in the 2016 election cycle, Utah political observers should keep an eye on Jonathan Johnson, a Utah business leader and possible 2016 gubernatorial candidate. 

Johnson, the chairman of Overstock.com (a sponsor of Utah Policy Daily), continues to raise his profile in political and business circles. On Friday, he will participate in the Western Republican Leadership Conference as part of a three-person round table luncheon discussion at the Grand America Hotel that also includes prominent anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and Javier Palomarez, president and CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The three will discuss the importance of fighting for a limited government that keeps taxes low, minimizes regulations, and allows individuals to compete in a fair marketplace.

Johnson is emerging as a credible candidate for the 2016 Republican gubernatorial nomination. He says he hasn’t made a final decision, but he is inclined to run, and expects to run, even if Gov. Gary Herbert seeks re-election.

Johnson is a strong conservative with a libertarian bent, although he is clearly an independent thinker and is hard to pigeonhole. He is an idea guy and a problem-solver, not just a conservative ideologue. He is, for example, a strong proponent of sensible and comprehensive immigration reform. He also has led the Salt Lake Chamber’s task force on air quality and he supports aggressive action to avoid dirty air during weather inversions.

He has also done a lot of work to protect religious liberty, which he believes is under assault in the courts, in many legislatures, and in federal legislation. “Freedom of worship in our churches is alive and well,” he said. “But freedom to express or exercise religious belief outside of church is under attack.” Johnson has written op-eds about religious liberty and has held town meetings on the topic. When religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, under Obamacare, are forced to violate their religious values by providing birth control services in their health insurance coverage, then religious freedom is clearly being eroded, Johnson said.

“Part of the problem is that too many organizations of all types have become too dependent on the federal government,” Johnson said. “That allows the Congress and federal agencies to try to impose their will in areas where the federal government has no business being involved.”

While the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule definitively on the issue of same-sex marriage, Johnson believes it is becoming a settled issue and the fight to protect traditional marriage will probably be lost. He has created the Promote Liberty PAC “to combat this direct assault on the First Amendment and to preserve the historic role of churches and religious associations in our homes, communities, states and country.”

Johnson said he believes Gov. Herbert is a good person who has served our state with integrity for two terms.  But Johnson says that he has ideas that he believes the public is ready to hear and debate. “Businesses have to innovate or die,” he said. “But government many times keeps doing the same old things, and improvement comes too slowly.  The state has someserious future challenges and the Legislature needs a partner in the governor’s office to accomplish a great many more things for the benefit of Utah families and children.”

Johnson said his business is “ferociously competitive.” But that’s good, because business competition, and even business failure, lead to stronger companies and better products and services. It’s hard to replicate that cycle of improvement in government, he said, where regulations, services and processes often stay the same for decades, but it needs to be done.

“I’d like to see most laws passed with sunset provisions,” Johnson said. That would force policymakers to test, to reassess, and to evaluate whether an element of government needs tweaking, or is doing fine, or should be killed. “We don’t have a system to find failure, in a positive sense, that leads to improvement. We need that.”

Johnson has high interest in educational improvement. Overstock.com has supported two of the state’s high schools facing the most challenges, Monument Valley and Whitehorse, with a reading incentive program that awards free tablet computers to students who achieve goals. “It’s better than just giving everyone a computer,” he said. “They appreciate it more and take better care of it. Providing the right incentives, challenges and rewards can work wonders in education.”

It’s still very early, but Johnson could provide some interesting competition in the 2016 race for the governorship.