Who is the best job creator/business genius running for governor this year?
Republican Jonathan Johnson, chairman of Overstock.com?
GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, a well-liked leader who has overseen Utah’s remarkable economic recovery?
If you can believe it, says Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michael Wienholtz, it’s him – creator of three success businesses and chairman of the board of CHG Healthcare, a $1-billion-a-year doctor/nurse temporary service firm located here in the Beehive State.
“I’ve been a CEO for 26 years,” Weinholtz told a Monday luncheon meeting of the Utah Taxpayers Association’s Utah Taxes Now! Conference.
“Of the three (governor’s) candidates, I have the most business experience; more in common with you (the conservative business leaders in attendance) than you may realize,” said Weinholtz, thanking the UTA for inviting him into the “belly of the beast.”
The association’s president – state Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper – asked each of the three to detail where they agreed or disagreed with the Utah 2.0 tax reform proposals.
Utah 2.0 is a plan adopted and pushed by the Association and several business advocate groups, including the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.
And it appears that Johnson, Herbert and Weinholtz all agree with Utah 2.0 – part of which was passed by the 2016 Legislature.
Weinholtz is the Utah Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee – having won the honor at last month’s state party convention.
Johnson and Herbert face each other in a June 28 GOP primary vote. The winner there is the likely November victor – Utah hasn’t elected a Democrat as governor since 1980.
But Weinholtz is proving to be an articulate candidate in the few joint appearances he’s had with his GOP opponents so far.
“I’ve lived the American Dream,” said Weinholtz in his 10-minute address to the group in the Grand America Hotel.
He worked a factory job out of high school, going to college business classes at night to earn a degree after eight years.
“I’ve bootstrapped myself, grown companies, like many of you have,” he told the audience.
“I have the best perspective on tax issues” of the three candidates through “practical understanding.”
Johnson – who trails Herbert badly in a recent UtahPolicy head-to-head poll by Dan Jones & Associates released last week – said Utah was doing better than most other states on tax rates and fairness issues.
“But we are beginning to lose our edge,” said Johnson, who has held several top Overstock.com positions.
A recent report showed that Utahns carry too heavy of a tax burden. “I like Utah 2.0 because it would make us more competitive with surrounding states,” he added.
But several of the 2.0 reforms – like reducing corporate income tax rates and extending the sales tax exemption for short-lived manufacturing equipment inputs – should be phased in over several years to minimize impacts on state revenues, said Johnson.
Herbert and Weinholtz agreed – go slow on giving more business tax exemptions, even if they are good tax policy.
“We should not punish firms who buy tools (or supplies)” that are quickly used up in the manufacturing processes, said Johnson.
Herbert went through what has become his economic litany over the last several years – ticking off how good Utah is doing economically: Leading the nation in job creation and unemployment, the tax burden dropping steadily, a solid diverse business climate and well-educated workforce.
Overstock.com, since it is located in Utah, does assess the state and local sales taxes on all online purchases. But across the nation, and in Utah as well, state and local sales tax revenues are taking big hits because retail buyers are not paying sales taxes on items that don’t have a “nexus,” or a physical connection, in the state where the buyer lives.
Utah is losing an estimated $180 million a year in unpaid sales tax on online purchases.
Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, had a bill that would start recouping that lost revenue. It would have only required online businesses to add Utah sales taxes on purchases if the firm did more than $125,000 a year in total sales. But it didn’t pass the 2016 Legislature.
Even though Utah is doing well in “fair” taxation and a growing economy, said Herbert: “We are not perfect, but by golly were doing pretty well.”