Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Reading, Writing and the Gubernatorial Race

bernick mugWe’re just over two weeks away from the June 28 Utah primary election and the showdown between GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and his intra-party challenger, Jonathan Johnson.

This is the major primary race of 2016.

For the winner, it’s pretty much a downhill slide to victory in November.

While Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michael Weinholtz is an articulate, fine candidate, Utah hasn’t voted in a Democratic governor since 1980.

As UtahPolicy polls by Dan Jones & Associates have shown, Johnson is not well-known among voters.

And for the last week or so Johnson has had to play defense on his fundraising, as his TV ad campaign is fueled by friend/boss Patrick Byrne of to the tune of $850,000.

If you are unknown and being outspent in a primary race, you want to be on the offense, not the defense.

Now, Johnson has forced Herbert to make a few political moves – mostly on the education front.

As an active member of the National Governors Association – and its president this year – Herbert in the past has embraced the NGA-originated Common Core standards for education effectiveness.

Herbert was unexpectedly bashed on the side of his head in the 2012 state GOP convention over Common Core and its archconservative, federal-government-fearing worriers.

But Herbert eliminated his GOP opposition in the convention that year and didn’t have a primary election.

This year is different.

Johnson, who is clearly trying to run from Herbert’s political right, is again beating the governor up over Common Core, and it’s bedfellow, the SAGE testing program.

This spring, Herbert – who had GOP AG Sean Reyes conduct an “investigation” that showed no Utah education laws were being broken and, in fact, Common Core and other state standards WERE NOT being ordered by the federal government – backed away from Common Core, saying while it is not a federal takeover of local schools, the controversy is hurting education here.

Herbert also said SAGE testing in high schools should be dumped – such a swing that there was blowback from teachers and the State School Board which actually oversees these programs – not the governor’s office.

Now Herbert has a new TV spot running where he says over the next four years Utah will become No. 1 in public education among the states.

This is quite a claim – or goal – considering that Utah remains in last place among the states in per-student spending – and there’s likely no way taxes could be raised enough to balance that out.

Yes, Herbert has overseen the greatest spending spree on public education in the history of the state, more than $2 billion over recent years – all without raising education taxes.

The new money comes from the excellent economic growth in the state; something Herbert deservedly takes some credit for.

But other states, including Idaho to our north, have had 6 percent and 7 percent increases in basic education funding while Utah remains around 3 percent a year.

Of course, Johnson, running on a fiscal restraint platform, says more dollars for education is not the answer.

But it appears some of his education reform ideas will indeed cost taxpayers more money, in one way or another. (Johnson denies this, saying “reallocation” of education dollars will get more money into teachers’ pockets and classrooms.)

Herbert’s dumping of Common Core and the SAGE testing program, along with his new pledge to somehow make Utah public schools the best in the nation in only four more years, shows me that he sees his campaign vulnerable to Johnson’s harping on troubled public schools.

However, Johnson was a leader in the 2007 battle over private school vouchers. After years of battling in the GOP-controlled Legislature, vouchers passed that year.

But the Utah Education Association and others quickly got the new law on the ballot via referendum, and citizens repealed it.

Vouchers have been a political taboo ever since on Capitol Hill. But would a Johnson administration bring it back in some form?

While Herbert has been pushed around on the education issue by Johnson, even Herbert hasn’t brought up vouchers as a viable alternative.

Meanwhile, Herbert has continued to duck Johnson on the public debate forum (none even scheduled yet).

And just Thursday, Herbert canceled his monthly KUED-TV Channel 7 press conference, yet another example that Herbert prefers this primary campaign to be on his turf of TV and radio ads and small public appearances among his voting base.