KSL, File

Jon Huntsman Jr. says Utah poised to ‘knock the cover off the ball’

By Lisa Riley Roche, KSL | Posted - May 30, 2020 at 9:37 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. says he’s running for governor again because he would be “a very unfulfilled man” if he didn’t try to put his experience to use on the issues that matter most to him, transforming the state’s economy and confronting a mental health crisis.

“My dad and my grandaddy always taught the philosophy that you die with your boots on, keep moving,” the twice-elected governor, who stepped down more than a decade ago to serve as an ambassador for first, a Democratic president, and later a Republican, recently told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards.

But Huntsman, who ran for president in 2012, said he has “zero interest” in holding another federal post, even secretary of state, and pledged to turn down any future offers. He said he’s done with Washington, D.C., and the work that’s most important to him now “is right here at home.”

Huntsman is one of four candidates in next month’s Republican gubernatorial primary, along with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright. Gov. Gary Herbert, who was Huntsman’s lieutenant governor before assuming the office, is not seeking reelection.

Asked why he’s hoping to return to the governor’s office, Huntsman quoted a former president, Theodore Roosevelt, who said it’s not critics who count, but “the man in the arena” willing to strive for the highest achievements despite the possibility of falling short.

“I’m also one who believes that if you’ve got enough by way of experience, by way of vision of where this state could go and the network of relationships and connections maybe to get us ahead in the game, if I were to just sit out and say that doesn’t matter, I would be a very unfulfilled man, quite frankly,” Huntsman said.

That vision is focused on taking advantage of economic shifts resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, especially turning Utah into what Huntsman calls a “crossroads of the world,” a global center for the financial services, biotechnology and defense industries.

“I think we have a very unique opportunity coming out of COVID-19, not simply to just recover and continue on like business as usual, but to knock the cover off the ball,” he said, in those “areas that the state is positioned to grow in, industries that are going to be the growth leaders for the nation and the global economy.”

Utah has “natural compatibility” from a workforce, higher education and manufacturing standpoint, Huntsman said, to the three industries he identified in a recent Deseret News op-ed. His “totally doable” goal, he said, is to boost the state’s GDP from $180 billion to $500 billion.

That requires establishing the state as a “safe haven” for capital, something Huntsman said he worked on before as governor from 2005-09. Post-pandemic, he predicted there will be the largest mobilization of investments since World War II and “all bets are off” on capital staying put in major financial centers like New York, London or Tokyo.

The top regulatory barriers to business have to be identified and removed, Huntsman said, noting some 5,000 bills imposing new regulations have been passed since the last such attempt nearly a decade ago. Tax reform is still always needed, too, he said.

“I don’t think you ever arrive at the promised land on tax reform,” Huntsman said. He was critical of the plan passed and then repealed earlier this year by lawmakers, saying he spent years on a plan as governor that included the nation’s first “flat” income tax rate as well as removing much of the state sales tax on food.

The latest attempt at tax was a “non-starter” because it restored the full state sales tax on food, he said. The repeal of that plan, which actually would have reduced taxes overall, came amid the success of a citizens referendum effort to put it on the ballot.

But Huntsman did offer support for taking a “serious look” at another unpopular area of tax reform, imposing sales taxes on a broad range of services. Lawmakers tried and failed to pass such a tax during the 2019 Legislature and included only a handful of proposed services in the now-repealed plan.

Addressing mental health issues is also key to his campaign, Huntsman told the editorial boards, because it’s affected his family. Last November, the Huntsman family, which started the Huntsman Cancer Institute in 1995, pledged $150 million to the University of Utah to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

“It’s personal because I had a sister die of a drug overdose and it was preceded by mental illness that none of us wanted to talk about. That was 10 years ago. It was not until just recently that we’ve even been willing to talk about it as a family and I have seen countless others around the state suffer similarly,” Huntsman said.

The suffering he and others have experienced comes because “no one’s there to demystify it. Nobody there to put it in perspective. Nobody there to walk them through what this really is versus what maybe others think it might be,” he said.

“When our leading cause of death between those 10 and 25 years old is suicide, and when we have become the buckle of the suicide belt in America, that’s a wake-up call. That’s when we all should be blowing the all-hands-on-deck whistle saying, ‘What can we do in our individual communities and our individual professions to bring light and knowledge and understanding to an issue that clearly lacks it?’” Huntsman said.

What’s needed is parity between physical and mental health, “which is the whole problem,” he said. When it comes to dealing with mental illness, many people can’t afford needed care that’s not covered by insurance, as well as a shortage of needed professionals.

“I think we get there by looking at mental health exactly as we look at water, transportation, education. We have long-term plans. We don’t have a long-term plan for mental health,” Huntsman said, including how to provide care to rural residents, veterans and other vulnerable populations.

His goals for the state don’t involve what he termed “small thinking. As I’ve gone around and told folks, ‘If you want the status quo, I’m not your guy. You can vote for somebody else,’” Huntsman said, adding that especially as COVID-19 weakens how China and other markets are seen, Utah “should be in the catbird seat.”

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