ST. GEORGE — From the state’s recent tax reform bill to the Lake Powell Pipeline, Utah’s Republican gubernatorial candidates met in St. George Thursday to speak to on issues impacting the state and Southern Utah specifically.
The candidates gathered for a forum at the 2020 St. George Area Economic Summit held at the Dixie Convention Center. While the candidates were largely in agreement concerning the questions offered by the moderator, their responses in how to address certain topics varied on occasion.
Attending the forum were former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador John Huntsman, Jr., Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, former Utah Republican Party chair Thomas Wright and businessman Jeff Burningham.
The controversial tax reform bill recently passed by the Legislature was the first topic of discussion handed to the candidates. Proponents of the bill say it’s needed in order to restructure Utah’s tax laws due to falling tax revenue. While the bill cuts income tax, it raises taxes on various services as well as food. Parties opposed to the bill have already launched a ballot initiative campaign to repeal it.
All of the candidates agreed there were problems in the state’s tax code that needed fixing. They also said the process that created the bill was flawed and didn’t involve the public as much as it should have. They also opposed the food tax.
“We do have a challenge in this state, a structural challenge,” Cox said. “However, I did oppose the tax reform, as did many on this stage, for a couple of reasons. One being the inclusion of the food tax.”
As governor, Cox said he’d have government spending reviewed and cut before issuing a tax hike. This happened when he was a part of the Sanpete County Commission in 2010 during the Great Recession, he said. Other county officials told Cox they needed to raise taxes. Instead, Cox said he went through many ideas on how to reduce the county’s spending and was able to cut costs by 40%.
“We should reduce government spending first. That should always be our first priority, to reduce government spending before we increase taxes on the backs of those who are paying those taxes,” he said.
Hughes said people don’t know the Legislature as well as they know the governor. Because of this, not many people knew what their legislators were trying to do. There should also be a large tax cut to go along with the tax reform and a governor who’s job it’ll be to sell the concept of tax reform to the public.
“The public will never be OK with something that I don’t think there’s enough information, or the bully pulpit to explain, inform and collectively debate the issues in front of us, and that is the inherent problem with that tax bill,” Hughes said.
The seemingly perpetual topic of the Lake Powell Pipeline was also brought up. The support among the candidates for the project was universal. They said the area needs water to continue growing, and Utah has rights to the water from the Colorado River that will feed the pipeline.
“You cannot grow without water,” Burningham said. “Water is one of the most critical resources we have in the state of Utah, so we need to be wise with conservation. But growing without water is impossible. Funding (the pipeline) also does not become an issue if St. George continues to thrive and grow.”
Huntsman agreed, as did the rest of the candidates.
“The answer is an overwhelming and enthusiastic yes. Let’s get on with it,” Huntsman said.
Wages in the Washington County area are below the state average despite the high cost of living, according to a question given by the forum moderator. The candidates were asked what they would do to attract high paying jobs to Southern Utah.
Hughes said a way to make sure the economy continues to grow, and thereby supply high paying jobs, is to make sure the area’s infrastructure is supported and maintained in the face of a growing population.
“With the growth that Utah and Washington County has experienced, you also have a downside,” Hughes said. “The good news is you’re growing. The bad news, or the challenge is, you’re growing. Your transportation infrastructure is where commerce occurs. It has to work and the congestion has to be addressed.”
Investments in infrastructure are for tomorrow as much as they are for today, Hughes said.
Wright said a way to bring in higher-paying jobs is to diversify the economy.
“St. George was largely built on tourism, and as it grows – I see the population projected to go to 500,000 in 2065 – we have to diversify the economy,” he said. “The way you do that is by bringing in manufacturing jobs, by bringing in tech jobs, by bringing in healthcare jobs, by bringing in biomedical jobs.”
In addition to creating a workforce that will be able to attract and fill such jobs, Wright said more should be done to embrace and support local tech companies like PrinterLogic and Ram Company that were already diversifying the economy.
Related to bringing in higher-paying jobs was the education needed to create them, which bled into a question to candidates about their vision for building higher education in order meet the demands of a rapidly changing and growing state economy.
There was a common theme among the candidates that the value of four-year degrees is not what it once was, and that as much emphasis should be placed on students attending technical colleges as obtaining a degree.
“When (high school students) graduate, we need to tell them that a four-year degree is not the only answer,” Newton said. “We need to change the culture in this state where its OK to go to trade school, it’s OK to get a certificate in coding or some other line of work.”
Part of that entails preparing students in grade school for future career paths they can pursue so they have more direction instead of potentially graduating with a degree that may not help them with a career, Newton said.
Newton’s ideas mirrored those of Burningham, who also said more preparation should be done on in K-12 classes as students prepare for higher education, be it for a degree or trade certificate.
“A four-year degree is not the only way to be successful,” Burningham said. “Let’s bring technical training … into the classroom so our kids are prepared for the jobs that exist and are coming.”
There was also talk of growth, another one of the region’s perpetual issues. Responses from the candidates called for early planning so proper infrastructure is in place beforehand.
“You have choices to make, right now. You should make them early,” Huntsman said as he compared the land between St. George and Cedar City to that between Salt Lake City and Provo. There’s not much free space between Salt Lake City and Provo, he said.
“What is that growth corridor going to look like? What do we want our growth patterns to be?”
Huntsman said communities can flourish as they grow and maintain their quality of life as long as they have smart people at the helm, have a competitive environment and have access to capital.
Both Newton and Cox said the state government wasn’t there to tell local communities how to grow, but rather to support those communities in how to get infrastructure right for future growth.
St. George Mayor Jon Pike said he was happy to see all six declared GOP gubernatorial candidates attend the forum.
This is also the first time all of the gubernatorial candidates have attended a forum in Southern Utah, Pike said. He believes this is due to the growing population and economy of the area that isn’t so easily overlooked as it used to be.
“We are a solid and growing economic engine for this state,” Pike said. “I think the days of discounting that are over. We have the attention of Salt Lake … I’m glad they’re not ignoring it. I’m glad we heard good and fairly consistent comments today saying, ‘We won’t forget about Southern Utah.’”
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