ST. GEORGE — The state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the economy became a focal point Thursday during an online debate between the four GOP candidates running to governor.
In addition to their thoughts on how the state has tackled the pandemic under Gov. Gary Herbert’s leadership, questions posed to the candidates included their views on working with President Trump if he’s reelected, education funding, the Lake Powell Pipeline project and other issues.
Hosted by the Washington County Republic Women, the online debate featured Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Utah Republican Party chair Thomas Wright and former Utah governor and ambassador Jon Huntsman. The debate was run via the Zoom teleconferencing application. It ran for 90 minutes and is still able to be viewed on the WCRW’s Facebook page .
Regarding the state’s response to COVID-19 and its economic and health impacts, Cox, who was appointed by Herbert to lead the state’s coronavirus response task force, said he was “incredibly proud” of what the state had done thus far.
Utah was one of seven states that did not impose a strict statewide stay-at-home lockdown order and was also among the first five to move on reopening elements of the state economy that had been halted due to pandemic concerns, Cox said. The state also has one of the most diverse economies in the nation, and prior to the onset of the virus, touted one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, he said.
“This means we have the foundation to lead the rest of the country out of this crisis,” Cox said. “It’s absolutely critical we do this the right way.”
Utah is also among the highest states for coronavirus testing and one of the lowest for mortality rates, Cox said.
Concerning the “Utah Leads Together” plan Herbert rolled out – which was a collaborative effort between Utah health officials and business leaders – Cox said more than a dozen states have contacted Utah about adopting the plan for their own use as they move forward on reopening their own economies.
Cox nonetheless noted how devastating the economic impacts of COVID-19 have been on small businesses within the state and added it was something that impacted his own family.
Herbert’s recent declaration allowing the state to go from a high-risk threat level (red) to a moderate-risk level (orange) on April 30 has helped pave the way for businesses across the state to reopen to an extent as they continue to observe strict social distancing and overall health guidelines.
“Because of what we’ve done, that’s why we’re able to get back to business right now,” Cox said. “It worked. Utah should be proud of that.”
While Cox lauded the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the three other candidates, particularly Hughes, felt parts of the governor’s plans and support for small business fell short.
Huntsman, who has lived in Moscow and Beijing as a U.S. envoy to Russia and China, said his time in those countries gave him a greater appreciation for American civil liberties. He expressed concern that the way the state was handling the pandemic could erode those civil liberties due to government overreach. He said the state should provide citizens with what they need to know about the pandemic and then get out of the way.
“Tell us what we need to know and let us live our lives,” Huntsman said.
The former governor also said he felt the state hadn’t done enough to financially support small businesses in the state that had to close, and he recommended that money from the state’s rainy day fund could be used for that purpose.
Wright, who owns his own business, said he’s been worried about the well-being of his own employees.
“We need to look out for small business,” he said. “We need someone in office who knows the private sector.”
Wright also said he believes the state should allow counties to determine when they should be able to get back to work, referring to the state’s recent refusal to allow Washington County to go from a moderate-risk threat level for the virus to to a low-risk one.
As for Hughes, he said he wasn’t happy with what the state has done with the economy.
“I’m not happy with what’s happened to peoples lives,” he said. “Businesses have been closed that will never open again.”
Hughes’ criticism of the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic largely mirrored that of Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson, his running mate, who previously said the governor’s plan had “burned the economy to the ground.”
“Bills come due every 30 days,” Hughes said. “This pandemic – the full weight of it is being felt on the shoulders of the working people of our state. If I’m your governor, we’re not going to get back to work in a month. We’re not going to get back to work in a week. We’re going to get back to work now.”
Hughes also criticized the state’s refusal to allow Washington County to go to a lower virus threat level earlier this week.
Candidates were also asked for their thoughts on President Donald Trump and how well they think they could work with him as Utah’s governor if Trump were to be reelected.
Each said their were pleased with what Trump had accomplished since taking office and made particular note of how strong the economy had become under the his administration before the coronavirus derailed it.
“The next governor’s going to have to have a relationship with President Trump that’s one where you can communicate and where there’s trust,” Huntsman said. “What I’ve come to find with President Trump, because I’ve worked with him one-on-one as a U.S. envoy in Moscow, is he’ll work with you if you’re willing to work with him. … He’ll return your calls and get things done.”
However, if the president thinks you’ve tried to stand in his way or won’t work with him, he’s not likely to work with you, Huntsman added.
“I will bring to the governorship a unique ability to work with President Trump, and I believe he will be reelected and that will be a good thing for the country,” Huntsman said.
The candidates were also asked how they would address the affordable housing crunch facing the state.
“We need a strong governor on this issue,” Wright said. “A governor who understands the importance of housing and will go out there and make it happen, never having a heavy hand or telling local municipalities what they have to do.”
One challenge that needs to be overcome is the “not in my backyard” mentality, Wright said. Everybody knows there’s a problem yet doesn’t want attainable housing built next to them, he said.
“We’ve got to have a governor who’s strong enough to talk about this in a way to inspire people to want that housing in their community,” he said. “It’s a positive for the economy. They’re great citizens, and they will add to those local communities.”
Another challenge is addressing land use issues and finding creative ways to find places were attainable housing could go.
With the rise of online shopping, Wright said massive parking lots at brick and mortar big box stores may no longer need the entirety of the space they take up. Working with the property owner, part of that parking lot could serve as the foundation for an attainable housing complex, he said.
On the topic of the Lake Powell Pipeline, the candidates each agreed it should be built and differed little in this regard. The topic of education funding also came up, to which each candidate expressed similar views on paying teachers more while also doing away with the some of the cumbersome paperwork they have to deal with related to student testing.
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