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SALT LAKE CITY — The first Utah gubernatorial debate kicked off with some softball questions but quickly got heated at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit Friday afternoon.
Education is most candidates’ No. 1 priority, they all support President Donald Trump (to different degrees), and there are apparently a lot of feelings about the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Silicon Slopes executive director Clint Betts moderated the debate, which included current Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Utah GOP chairman and businessman Thomas Wright, businessman Jeff Burningham and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton.
No Democratic candidates qualified for the debate. To meet debate thresholds, candidates had to raise at least $50,000 by Friday, Betts said.
Betts started the debate by asking each candidate a question tailored to their history or comments made during the election season — and some felt a little easier than others.
Burningham was asked to defend his criticism of the tax reform bill that was recently repealed by the Legislature (something all the candidates have vocally opposed), and said a tax on food does not fit into the Utah ecosystem. Utah does not have a revenue problem, but it does have a spending problem, he said.
Hughes was then grilled for failing to pass legislation that would reduce gun violence, though he said the Legislature has made strides in designing safer schools and lauding the Safe UT app, which allows students to send in tips about school threats or get connected with mental health professionals.
Winder Newton acknowledged Utah’s rapid growth and touted the importance of preparing for that growth by incorporating more planning aspects in the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. And Wright defended his choice of congressman Rep. Rob Bishop as a running mate.
Cox and Huntsman, the race’s leaders, fielded questions about Twitter and education, respectively, with Cox defending his Twitter account (it’s nothing close to Trump’s, he said), and Huntsman advocating for individualized education for children after he was asked to answer for his Parent Choice in Education Act that Utahns overwhelmingly overturned when he left office.
The first punch was thrown, however, when Wright said Bishop, with his Washington D.C. connections, could have gotten the money back from the federal government that Utah spent to keep the national parks open during the government shutdown.
“I had been lieutenant governor for a week when that shut down. Rob Bishop was literally in Congress and couldn’t get that money back,” Cox fired back at Wright, to applause from the crowd.
Wright tried to explain that he had simply been touting Bishop’s federal connections, but the cat was out of the bag.
Governor’s Office of Economic Development
Betts pushed the spotlight back on Cox, however, by asking him to explain why GOED has been criticized for giving tax incentives to out-of-state companies that are direct competitors of homegrown companies, effectively giving those outside companies a leg up.
Case in point: GOED offered a tax incentive to an out-of-state competitor of Divvy, one of Utah’s fastest-growing fintech companies.
Cox said he has been a vocal critic of GOED and advocates changing the way it operates. When Utah was in a recession, companies (and people) were leaving by the droves. So GOED’s strategy to attract outside businesses helped lower the 8% unemployment rate.
Now that the unemployment rate is 2.3%, attracting outside businesses means they don’t even have people to hire when they come here. Utah needs a more flexible system that uses that tax money to attract business when times are bad, then change the focus when times are good.
“More specifically, what we should be offering to companies if they want to come here is workforce development, education. That’s where our focus needs to be going forward,” he said.
Cox said he’s been pushing for that change, but has a lot of interests lined against him, though he believes GOED may be on board after a conversation he had with the department.
“You can’t say you’re running all the good things happening with this Herbert administration and then, when pressed on that question about … these incentives going forward say, ‘I don’t have the influence.’ You got to be able to get in that lane,” Hughes shot back, questioning whether Cox could “ride the wave” of the good things he’s pointed to in the current administration.
Cox said this was ironic, coming from the Speaker of the House who actually makes legislation and didn’t get anything done to change GOED. Then, the two spoke over each other for a few seconds before Betts reminded everyone that Huntsman was the one who started GOED, to laughs from the audience.
Huntsman smirked and said he didn’t want to get in the way of Hughes and Cox, each standing on either side of him. He did say, after Betts pressed him further, that he believed GOED needed a “good review” to return it to “something that’s fast, smart, lean and agile.”
Education was also a central focus of the debate, and Winder Newton reminded the crowd that 47 schools in Utah got an F grade last year. The Salt Lake City councilwoman promised to be outspoken as governor if the legislation coming from the state Legislature doesn’t match a comprehensive, long-term plan for education.
“How do we expect our kids to have the best education, if we don’t have the best people in the field. We need more resources for our teachers so we can have the top education system in Utah,” she said.
Education is a major priority for most candidates, and most agree teachers need better compensation and less regulation. Cox told KSL.com backstage that he wants all teachers in Utah to be paid at least $60,000, while other candidates, including Burningham and Wright, said they would let the free market decide those salaries.
Huntsman dodged a question about his Parent Choice in Education Act and merely said he would focus on individualized education for children, and advocated the use of more tech resources in classrooms.
When asked whether any of the candidates did not support Trump, no one raised their hand — though some (mainly Cox) have been outspoken against him on a variety of issues.
Betts put Huntsman on the spot first, though, and asked whether Trump’s calls with Ukraine are as perfect as he claims. Huntsman said, while he doesn’t support all of Trump’s actions, he praised the president for keeping the country out of war in the Middle East, standing up to China, and bettering the economy. He brushed the Ukraine phone call under the rug by saying presidents through the ages have made similarly questionable phone calls.
“Why don’t we do this with him? Why don’t we actually wait until the next presidential election, which is just a few months away, and let the American people decide instead of all these candidates,” he said to applause.
Betts turned to Cox next, noting that he had been outspoken against Trump several times. Cox agreed that he had, but he acknowledged that some “really good things” are happening in the country because of “good things” that are happening in Washington D.C. He noted that several Democratic candidates are running on policies that will lead the country right back into a recession. Trump won’t let that happen, he said.
Hughes then suggested all the candidates take a picture wearing MAGA hats following the debate, causing most of the candidates to smile uncomfortably.