SALT LAKE CITY — There are two weeks left before Utah’s primary elections and the Republican Party’s four candidates for governor took center stage Tuesday night in one final debate before the June 30 election.
In a two-hour debate broken up in two sections, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and businessman Thomas Wright made their last pitch to Utah Republican voters on what makes them the best candidate to face Democratic candidate Chris Peterson in November.
Here were some of the biggest takeaways from Tuesday’s debate.
There were two major themes that emerged Tuesday night — although they were themes brought up in debates held earlier this month. The first was COVID-19, to no surprise. The candidates offered input on what they thought went wrong and how they would have handled the situation.
It was different from previously-televised debates because Huntsman joined the debate remotely as he recovers from the coronavirus.
"It’s given me many perspectives — not least of all thinking about a lot of other people who are in a lot less fortunate set of circumstances," he said. "The pressure and anxiety that are put on families who have to live under the same roof, the uncertainty about tests that take too long before you get the results, the sheer isolation away from everybody, the social distancing; you learn a lot about best practices and worst practices."
Cox is the only candidate with a current role in the state’s coronavirus response. Candidates took the opportunity to blast his role as the Utah Coronavirus Task Force leader, saying it was used for political gain.
"I can only imagine how I would have been attacked if I wasn’t doing my job," Cox retorted. "I’m very proud of the people of this state. I’ve said before, the response was not perfect but under the circumstances, I would put that response against any other state in this nation and against any other country in this world. The people of Utah can be proud of the way that we bonded together, that we worked together to save lives and to save the economy."
More than 200,000 jobless claims have been made in Utah since March 15. That said, Utah’s unemployment rate in April was five percentage points below the national unemployment rate of 14.7%.
Hughes called Cox’s defense "hollow words" for those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, while Huntsman said leadership is taking accountability to missteps taken over the past few months.
There was also some discussion over how they would handle a future vaccine for the coronavirus, especially since that's expected to happen sometime after the new governor is inaugurated next year. Hughes said Utahns shouldn’t be required to have a COVID-19 vaccination should one be made available; instead, he insisted a vaccine should be up to individuals.
"Adults have every right to decide what to do with their medical future," he said.
Cox agreed that it’s important to give people a choice but added he would still encourage everyone to get one, especially to help some of the most vulnerable Utahns.
"I have two siblings who both have cystic fibrosis. If they get this disease, it could likely be the end of their life. This is real to so very, very many people," he said. "And I hope the people of Utah, and I know the people of Utah will take this very seriously, that they will do whatever they can to protect themselves and protect the people of the state, but it should not be a mandated vaccine."
In addition to the job losses, the pandemic has led to a massive state budget shortfall, which is likely to result in massive spending cuts. Another special session was called for this week to handle the state’s budget before the new fiscal year begins on July 1. Candidates were asked about how they would handle the deficit and Utah’s economy.
Huntsman said he’d focus on helping education and social services, which Cox said are priorities that the state has already circled.
"They won’t get everything they were hoping to get in the new budget season but we’ll be stable where we were last year, and that’s critical for teachers and the kids and our classrooms," Cox said, explaining that the 2021 budget would be similar to 2020.
Wright said his experience as a businessman would help in this situation, while not specifically saying what needed to be cut. He said the economic situation should ensure that the state’s top priorities, like education, are getting the funding they need.
"This is a great opportunity for the state of Utah to reel in spending that got a little bit out of control in the economic run up when times were flush and things were easy," he said. "I’ve had to do it with my business, and it’s been a tremendous opportunity to make things better. Let’s do it now in state government."
Hughes blamed COVID-19 restrictions for businesses as something that continues to make tax revenue difficult to collect and thus widening government revenue deficit. Unlike the federal government that prints money, states and local governments rely on taxes for their budget.
"This hole that we’re in, we just keep digging and it gets bigger. … We’re in some tough times here but you really can’t deal with this honestly if you’re not willing to see this economy get back and started," he said. "That’s priority one if you don’t want to see any more cuts in the state budget."
Dealing with Medicaid
The candidates backed away from raising taxes. One of the recent spikes in budget expenditures was a Medicaid expansion pushed forward by voters in 2018 before it was tweaked by lawmakers and went into effect in December. A good portion of that is being backed by a federal waiver.
But all four candidates did have choice opinions on the matter. They said they didn’t want the federal government’s help in funding the expansion — and also in education.
“It does not make this state stronger or more sovereign when we take federal funds,” Hughes said. “They have leverage over us as a state. It does not allow your locally-elected legislature and your governor to build a state budget that reflects the priorities of the people of Utah.”
Cox agreed, calling it “a growing concern” in Utah because it may lead to a program not turning into what it was intended to be. Huntsman said the state should focus on expanding an insurance marketplace that gives more “accessible and affordable and portable” insurance policies.
Wright, in the meantime, called for a free market and competition in health care with providers to cover conditions. He added he was concerned that If the state continues to receive federal funding, the federal government will continue to be intertwined in state affairs.
“We need to make sure our citizens are well taken care of but when it comes to health care, the challenge that we see is overregulation," he said. “The very government that is pretending to save us in this health care of unaffordable health care is the very government that’s causing it to be unaffordable in the first place.”
Going further into education, Cox said the state is planning to use its rainy day fund, which was set up for situations like Utah finds itself in right now. When asked why Utah remains at the bottom of education spending per pupil, he defended where the state is at.
"It’s not because we’re not trying; in fact, we’re trying harder than most states. There are two problems here: one, we have more kids per capita than anyone else and that’s a good problem to have, it really is," he said. "The second problem is that in most states education comes from property taxes. Unfortunately for the state of Utah, the federal government owns about 70% of our state."
Wright blasted that explanation, saying "you don’t get anything for effort; you get something for results." Those results, he said, need to be better teacher salary and better outcomes for Utah students.
Huntsman said he wants Utah to have a "world-class" education system that isn’t falling behind — not just other states but other countries.
"I don’t want my kids and grandkids to fall behind at all," he said. "I want them to be the very best they can be and we’re going to have to work to make sure we can get there and we can afford it."
The continued protests and police reform
The debate segment led off with another key theme from the evening, which was the protests that have emerged against systemic racism and police violence following the death of George Floyd. Many of the responses to it Tuesday echoed responses provided in previous debates. That is, they view Floyd's death as wrong and peaceful protests against the issue good.
Candidates did take shots at the state’s response to the May 30 riot in Salt Lake City; some said they would have sent in Utah Guardsmen sooner to quell the riots. But they also spoke about the discussions brought up in the weeks since.
"We need to take the best of what they’re saying. People are trying to make a point. They’re frustrated," Wright said of the protests. "In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we need to have a serious conversation in this country about racism and how to eliminate it. I, as governor, want to be a part of that discussion. I want to listen, I want to learn and I want to tell people I will be a part of the solution."
He agreed with banning officers from using chokeholds and said any reform of police needs to be done "thoughtfully" and "practically" in a way that ensures public safety is not at risk. He’s made repeated remarks that he would work with Utah’s Peace Officer Standards and Training to review police practices in the state.
Hughes called out Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall when she asked people to report instances of police harm from the May 30 riot the following day. The president of the Utah Fraternal Order of the Police also took exception to that but that matter was cleared up quickly.
"That is pinning the public against our law enforcement, our National Guard. I gotta tell you, you can’t raise these kids to think the police and law enforcement are the bad guys. You can’t do that," he argued. "If you don’t have the public servants that will lead, that will invest and take the arrows for public safety and fighting lawlessness — that has to come from the top up."
Huntsman reiterated his concerns by seeing a military helicopter in the air and vehicles on the ground, referring it to failed leadership. He said calling in for help from the Utah National Guard would have been among his last resorts and added this moment in America and in Utah calls for bringing people together.
Huntsman continued to say that he believes police are underfunded and undertrained; the protests, he added, are a result of people having no other avenue left to display their displeasure with the system that hasn’t been changed. Huntsman called on politicians to listen to both sides of the situation for a while before coming up with solutions.
"Leadership is about locking arms with the police — and I’m delighted and honored to carry the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of the Police — but also those who have grievances," he said. "We’re a civil society. This is how we operate. We don’t send in the heavy artillery unless it’s an admission of failure."
Cox, who is the co-chair of the state’s multicultural commission, brought up recent changes that Gov. Gary Herbert announced last week, which include giving directors of two of Utah’s diversity commissions a more direct role in reporting to the governor’s office. He choked up a bit reflecting on a recent conversation he had with a black mother of five children about racism the family had experienced in the state.
"This is a critical moment in our state’s history, in our nation’s history — giving us the opportunity to talk about real change and we are changing policies. … We can change all the policies and laws in the world, but if we don’t change our culture, we’re never going to get better at this," he said. "And I also sat down with a police officer and he was on the front lines (May 30). He was dodging rocks and bottles and we talked about how we’re asking officers to do too much."
Cox went on to say that defunding police would be "the worst possible thing that we could do right now," arguing to invest more into expanding mobile crisis outreach teams where mental health experts are dispatched to help de-escalate situations involving mental illness.