The four Republicans and lone Democrat remaining in the Utah gubernatorial race focused on growth in the first post-convention forum for the candidates hosted by Envision Utah.
Republicans Spencer Cox, Jon Huntsman, Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright, along with Democrat Chris Peterson, took turns discussing their plans for managing the growth in the state.
“When you come from the business sector, you have to see around the bend. You have to anticipate problems before they happen,” said Wright, who branded himself as the outsider in the race, touting his experience in the private sector. “Government tends to just confront the problem when it hits them.”
Huntsman warned that the current COVID-19 pandemic will likely lead to extended economic disruption, leading many Americans to move to Utah looking for economic opportunity. But, he said it will take a deft hand to manage that growth and provide opportunities for the rural areas of the state.
“Our goal should be to bring the same prosperity to our rural communities as we have in our urban areas. Agriculture is 20 percent of our state’s GDP. It’s greatly important to our future. These are the people who are going to carry us out of the recession,” he said.
Cox, who has long touted rural development as a keystone of his campaign said Utah has one of the top economies in the country, but it will take developing the state’s infrastructure to remain at the peak.
“Utah has an opportunity to really lead the push when it comes to building and maintaining that infrastructure that is going to keep the quality of life high in Utah,” he said. “We have invested in mass transit in the state, but we have not invested in our east-west corridors. There are places in the state that are seeing a diminishing quality of life because we don’t have the infrastructure in place.”
Hughes said that bringing economic opportunity to the rural areas of the state is crucial because the urban core is becoming too crowded, and that will have a big impact on the rest of Utah.
“There are probably 22 of the states 29 counties that have never seen a day of economic growth over the past decade. So young people leave those communities looking for jobs. You have to bring economic opportunity to the rest of the state so young people can find a career and find a life where they grow up,” said Hughes.
Peterson, the Democratic nominee, agreed with the push to bring economic development to the outlying areas of the state, which he says will help improve the state’s notoriously bad air quality along the Wasatch Front.
“We have some of the poorest air quality in the country, and it’s one of the few things that’s holding back our economic development and our role as a leader in the country,” he said. “We’ve heard some good ideas from the other side, but it’s been 40 years since our public has given a Democrat a chance to be governor. I think we need new leadership to solve this problem.”
Peterson suggested investing more money into infrastructure and rooftop solar energy.
The current coronavirus pandemic and recent 5.7 magnitude earthquake near Magna has put a sharp focus on the need for emergency planning and adapting to a new reality.
“This is the perfect time to reevaluate everything we’re doing with government to eliminate those unnecessary programs and right-size the programs we already have,” said Cox, who touted his efforts to allow state employees to work remotely that made the transition during the pandemic much easier for government.
Huntsman said water management will be a critical area for the next governor to focus on, especially as climate change will lead to less snow for the state.
“We’ve talked about the Lake Powell Pipeline project for 10 years and no one has done a thing about it. There have been no decisions made because there’s no political will. We’re going to suffer the implications from that,” he said.
Wright said Utah has been sorely lacking in new ideas on how to transform the state’s education system, especially finding a way to adequately compensate teachers.
“Teachers haven’t been paid fairly, and because of it we have a teacher shortage. The other candidates in the race have all been in government for 15 years, and we’ve been talking about these problems for the same amount of time. I believe it’s going to take new people and a new perspective to solve these issues,” said Wright.
Hughes predicted the economic disruption from the pandemic will lead to massive budget shortfalls for the state, perhaps up to $2 billion. He cautioned that the state should be wary when taking money from the feds to fill in those financial gaps.
“I’ve never seen any federal funds that make states’ rights stronger or the state’s ability to build its budget easier. Those federal funds will have a gravitational pull to them when we see our shortfalls arrive. These funds have strings attached to them, so we have to be careful we don’t give up too much control,” he warned.
Cox, Huntsman, Hughes and Wright will face off for the GOP nomination in the June primary election. The winner of that contest will face Chris Peterson in November.