ST. GEORGE – A gubernatorial candidate’s plans for education and public lands were the primary issues discussed in a town hall meeting held in St. George Saturday morning. Both topics were tied by an underlying theme of promoting the self-reliance at the state level over dependence on the federal government.
“We preach and practice self-reliance as individuals and as families. We should do it as a sovereign state,” said Republican candidate and Overstock.com chairman Jonathan Johnson, who is seeking to unseat Gov. Gary Herbert this year.
During the meeting, which drew a crowd of and between 20 and 30 people to The Falls Event Center, Johnson shared aspects of a plan he proposes for the state’s educational system.
“My goal is to make education more personalized and localized,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s plan calls for allowing individual school districts the ability to choose what testing standards they feel will work best for the student body and not be restricted to Common Core standards.
Another aspect of the plan would put more control of the state’s multibillion-dollar education budget into the hands of school principals with input from parents and others who would be a part of community councils.
“We need to let principals have larger control over the budget,” Johnson said. “We have so much we spend on education that doesn’t get to the classroom.”
As for personalization, Johnson supports the idea of education savings accounts that would help parents with customizing their child’s education.
“(This) is where the state gives to you, the parents, the money,” Johnson said. “You can spend it at the local school, at a charter school, to home school, online. If you don’t spend it at all you can save it and put it toward your childrens’ higher education when they need it.”
Herbert has been provided the means to challenge the federal government over the management of public lands in Utah and hasn’t done anything about it, Johnson said.
A proposed lawsuit challenging the federal government for control of the lands was given the OK by the Utah State Commission on Stewardship of Public Lands in December. However, when Herbert, who has said he supports gaining more local control over the lands, learned the lawsuit could run the state as much as $14 million, he chose to re-examine whether or not he supported the measure.
“I think the thing that gives us all pause is the cost,” the governor told reporters Jan. 26, as reported by the Deseret News. “You kind of have to handicap (it). We’re going to spend $14 million and our chances of success are what?”
The chances of success are good, Johnson said, but the state needs to act now rather than later.
“I think it’s time to be more aggressive,” Johnson said.
Local control of the lands would greatly benefit the state, he said, citing a 2014 feasibility study conducted by three Utah universities. According to the study, the state use of the public lands could produce as much as $331.7 million in annual revenue.
“The public lands issue is crucial,” Johnson said.
“You can’t come to St. George and not talk about water,” Johnson said.
The state needs to do a better job of collecting and managing its water, he said, supporting the idea of building more reservoirs and the possibility of the Lake Powell Pipeline.
The state also sends more water to states downstream on the Colorado River than it is contractually obligated to and does so for free, Johnson said. He argued the state should be leasing water rights to those states instead of giving the water away for free.
Johnson has been conducting town hall meetings across the state for the last 18 months, he said. He’s been in meetings with as little as four people and as many as 400. He aims to get his message out to the entire state, he said, as he intends to be the governor for all Utah, not just the Wasatch Front.
A supporter of the caucus-convention system, Johnson will be pursuing that course to get on the Republican party’s ballot.
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 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.
Johnson wants to bring the business principles that made Overstock successful to Utah government.
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