How and when Utah will recover from the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 is a question nobody can answer definitively. Unemployment is rising as businesses struggle to regain their economic footing following the disruption from Utahns staying home to control the spread of the virus.
During Thursday afternoon’s Salt Lake Chamber gubernatorial debate, the four Republican candidates weren’t willing to definitively say when the economic problem will be over. For instance, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said it may be a while for Utah’s economy to snap back, but the state is well-positioned to take advantage when it happens.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but we know jobs tend to leave quickly and come back slowly,” said Cox. “But this case is a little different than what we saw during the great recession because the fundamentals were very strong heading into this downturn. But, it’s going to depend on how quickly the medical community comes up with a solution.”
Former House Speaker Greg Hughes took a much more aggressive stance, urging the state to get the economy running again sooner rather than later.
“Getting back to work has to happen today, not a month from now,” said Hughes. “We were told to go inside and close our business doors, and I don’t see that as a sustainable business model. I don’t know how you keep paying the bills. People need to get back to work.”
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman says a reasonable timeline for the state to start seeing an uptick in the economy is the first or second quarter of 2021, but that will depend on consumer behavior.
“We’re not just going to sign up to go to a mass event like a Jazz game or a concert anytime soon, and it’s going to take a while before restaurants are back to operating normally again. But, I suspect we’ll see a lag through the end of the year or the first part of next year.”
Businessman Thomas Wright is leaning hard into his experience in the private sector, saying he’s the best-suited candidate to help the state recover because he’ll bring new ideas to the table.
“The tough truth is a lot of the jobs we’re losing won’t come back. We need a business person who understands the private sector and knows how to create business and opportunity in order to get the state back on track,” said Wright.
But, what is the plan to help the state turn the corner from recession to recovery? If history is any guide, the winner of the GOP nomination in June will be the next governor of the state. Utah has not elected a Democrat in more than a generation, the last one being Scott Matheson who was elected in 1976. That means, one of these four will take office in January of 2021 right as the state is working to dig out of the economic hole from the coronavirus.
Cox says the key will be to transition Utah’s economy by focusing on education.
“We used to be a country of builders, now we’re consumers,” said Cox. “We have to build a more resilient Utah by focusing on education. We have to get Utah back to work and retrain the workforce of the future.”
Huntsman touted his experience leading Utah out of the throes of the Great Recession during his first term in office.
“We shouldn’t fear this moment in our history. This is what our state is built for. Out of adversity comes greatness. We don’t need more lectures from government. We need people to think differently about problem-solving,” said Huntsman who suggested using the money in the state’s rainy day fund as a line of credit for struggling businesses, as well as creating a payroll tax incentive for businesses who keep their employees working.
Hughes says whatever solutions the state comes up with will have to be fast-tracked, because Utah’s economy faces a critical moment, and we can’t rely on the federal government for a solution.
“If we think the feds can print enough money to make the economy recover, we’re fooling ourselves. Our budget will have a huge shortfall, but I’ve never seen a single federal dollar that makes our state stronger,” said Hughes.
Hughes warned that reality has a way of outpacing even the best-laid plans.
“We can come up with all the plans we want, but when people don’t have the money to pay their bills, they’re going back to work. We have to get ahead of that,” he added.
Wright said an infusion of new blood into state government will allow him to hit the ground running when he takes office in January.
“When you have the same people in government for years, they lose their edge. When you have new people, they see things differently. They identify problems that previous people just couldn’t see. We’re going to bring int he best and brightest minds and put them to work for the greater good of Utah,” he said.