ST. GEORGE — As a Republican gubernatorial hopeful for 2016, the chairman of Overstock.com wants to apply business principles to Utah’s government, fight for state control of public lands and foster less reliance on federal funding.
During a visit to Southern Utah, businessman Jonathan Johnson sat with various elected officials, media outlets and held a town hall meeting at Dixie State University Wednesday. He officially announced in August during the Utah GOP’s convention in Sandy that he is running against sitting Gov. Gary Herbert.
Known largely as the chairman of the board of Overstock.com, Johnson practiced law with a firm in California before moving his family back to Utah, where he became legal counsel for a software business and eventually counsel for Overstock in 2002. Since then he has served in a number of positions within the company, including its president and acting CEO.
Johnson has been with the company from its time as a startup with 18 employees to it what is now a billion-dollar business with over 1,000 employees. He’s managed big budgets and helped Overstock operate with an 18-percent margin in order to keep costumer costs low.
Now Johnson wants to bring the business principles that made Overstock successful to Utah government.
“I think bringing a business perspective and business principles to government is healthy,” Johnson said.
What kind of Republican?
Johnson said he is a small government Republican and an individual rights Republican, adding that people are typically the ones best suited to make their own choices.
“I think the best person to make a decision for me is me,” he said. “The further away from the individual and family we get (in) decision making, the worse (it gets).”
One of the things that has influenced Johnson’s thoughts on governance is a book titled “Leadocracy” by Geoff Smart. The basis of the book, Johnson said, is the concept that the quality of leaders the people choose determines the quality of government they receive.
During the town hall meeting at DSU, Johnson also touted himself as a nonestablishment Republican. He is also a fan of the state’s original caucus-convention system and does not support the efforts of the Count My Vote movement.
Less federal reliance
While Herbert has spoken about federal overreach and states rights, his words have been more lip service than action, Johnson said. While decrying alleged abuses of the federal government and its bureaucracies, Herbert has nonetheless accepted federal funding, he said, which has come to account for $3.5 billion of the state’s overall budget.
“I won’t look to Washington, D.C., for solutions and funding of solutions,” Johnson said
So how would the state fund certain services and programs currently reliant on federal dollars if that stream of funding were cut off?
Johnson pointed to the state taking over the management of the public lands.
“I will work to get the public lands back,” Johnson said.
The state already has the tools to move ahead and challenge the federal government’s management of the lands via the lawsuit the Legislature has authorized and granted funding. He also pointed to an economic study done earlier this year by three of the state’s universities that concluded the state could benefit from managing those lands.
While some in the state government say Utah shouldn’t rock the boat too much because they still have to work with Washington, D.C., Johnson said he isn’t buying the argument. Utah needs to move forward with the lawsuit as it will give the state leverage in negotiations over the matter. Otherwise nothing changes.
“If we’re not willing to fight the fight, we’ll be getting more of the same,” Johnson said.
Should the state be able to take over management of public lands, Johnson said, it would go a long way toward the funding of education and transportation in the state while also likely lowering taxes.
Over 60 percent of the land within Utah is public land managed by the federal government.
Johnson is aware of the current situation in Washington County unfolding between the Bureau of Land Management and the area’s elected officials over the BLM’s draft resource management plan.
The draft plan, which covers the Beaver Dam and Red Cliffs conservation areas, could restrict access and grazing, affect access to water currently used by county municipalities and kill the proposed northern corridor. Municipal and county leaders are not pleased with the proposed plan and have gone so far as to call it a betrayal and anti-human.
“It’s pretty draconian what it’s doing to our public lands,” Johnson said.
Ethics and term limits
In the wake of the public corruption scandal surrounding former Utah Attorney Generals John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff, Johnson was asked at the town hall if he is in favor of the creation of an independent ethics commission that could monitor and possibly halt such incidents.
“I think there should be an independent ethics commission and/or an inspector general in Utah,” he said.
He also supports having a good working relationship with the state auditor and treating that position more as an ally than potential adversary.
Audits happen in business all the time and can help identify areas of concern, Johnson said, so why not welcome them at the government level?
Johnson is also in favor of term limits. Utah is one of 14 states that doesn’t have term limits set on the office of governor.
In a practically single-party state like Utah, Johnson said, a long-time politician who has built up a large amount of support over the years may pretty much be guaranteed reelection. This leads to little natural tension during elections of change.
“It’s unhealthy to have someone in office for 12, 16 or – as a politician in office – for 30 years,” he said.
Herbert has served in public office in various capacities since 1990.
Economy and business
“When the governor brags on the economy, I’m glad Utah’s economy is great,” Johnson said, “but I’m never quite sure if I’m supposed to say, ‘Governor, thank you,’ or, ‘Governor, you’re welcome.’”
It is businesses like Overstock, Skullcandy, Domo Technologies, Omniture and others in Utah that help build the state economy and create jobs, he said.
“As a businessman, I know what it takes to create jobs … and create careers,” Johnson said.
Government doesn’t create jobs, he said. However, it can nonetheless foster a climate in which businesses can either thrive or diminish based on regulations and taxation.
“If you want to elect quality leaders, put them through a rigorous interview process,” Johnson said, putting forth the idea that he and Herbert should set up debates across the state and not just along the Wasatch Front or an an hour-long talk radio show.
Though the bulk of the state’s population is located along the Wasatch Front, Johnson said he would focus on creating statewide solutions that benefit both urban and rural Utah.
“I don’t intend to be the Wasatch Front’s governor. I don’t intend to be the Utah Republican Party’s governor,” Johnson said. “I intend to be Utah’s Governor.”
- County officials outraged by draft BLM plan, demand comment extension
- Herbert tours Utah’s largest solar plant, ‘huge step’ toward sustainable energy
- Economic study: Utah could benefit from managing public lands
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