ST. GEORGE — Incumbent Rep. Brad Last and challenger Willie Billings met Tuesday evening at Southern Utah University to debate who will be the better GOP state representative for Iron County and the western half of Washington County as they move toward the primary election in June.
The candidate debate for Utah House District 71 was held at the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service. The debate was also streamed over YouTube.
Last works at Dixie State University and has served in the Utah House since 2003. He currently holds the position of the House Chair of the Executive Appropriations Committee.
Willie Billings is involved in financial services and has run a business in this field for over 30 years. He has served as the Washington County Republican Party chair and Utah Republican party vice chair.
Billings garnered 56% of the delegate vote in the state Republican nominating convention last month. Candidates need to gain 60% or more of the delegate vote in convention to avoid a primary election.
Questions posed to the candidates Tuesday included their opinions on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, small businesses impacts of the pandemic, supporting local economies and tax reform.
Regarding the pandemic, Last said he believed the state has “adequately addressed” it.
“I think some people would suggest we’ve over addressed COVID-19,” he said.
Last said he was impressed with the speed by which Utah put a plan together to deal with the virus and how much they’ve learned since the onset of the pandemic.
“I think we’ve done a nice job and have learned a lot,” he said.
Billings also said he believes Utah has done well to get ahead of the virus yet added he believes people can govern themselves rather than be prodded by government edict.
“I think we need to be cautious and vigilant, but we need to have the freedom to choose that,” Billings said, adding that people will learn to protect themselves and others during the pandemic provided government gives them the necessary information to do so.
“I like what Utah has done, but I truly believe we need to let people govern themselves,” he said. “I’m just not a fan of the government mandating things.”
The economies of Iron and Washington counties have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Zion National Park was closed for a time and only recently reopened with limited services, while in Iron County, the annual Utah Shakespeare Festival and Larry H. Miller Summer Games have both been canceled for the year.
Zion National Park is a major economic producer for Washington County, while the Utah Shakespeare Festival brings an estimated $35 million to Cedar City and Iron County annually.
Billings and Last were asked what they would do to promote and support local business.
“We’ve seen tough times before,” Billings said. “We’ve been in tough times before. We’ll recover from this. We need to do all we can to inspire our citizens and go out and support those businesses.”
Moreover, Billings said he had faith that people would be able to carry themselves through with the help of others and the ingenuity that tough times can bring.
Last said he had a neighbor with a business in Springdale who told him business was dying due to Zion National Park being closed. This led Last to speak with the governor’s officer, he said, and from there, he was able to pull the National Park Service, county commissioners and business owners together to discuss the issue.
“With the help of the governor’s office, we pushed the park service to open, I think, well before they would have if we hadn’t made that push,” Last said. “I’m proud of the way it worked out. … The parks are open, and now they (businesses) are starting to see activity.”
The article continue below the video
(The House District 71 debate starts at 33 minutes into the video)
Income tax exclusively funds public education in the state, while the sales tax covers the state’s operational, public safety and infrastructure projects and maintenance and other costs. While income tax revenues have risen for the state over the years, sales tax has decreased, which led to a tax reform effort that passed in 2019, only to be repealed earlier this year.
An amendment to the Utah constitution set before the voters this fall will allow the state to take some of the income tax revenue and apply it to noneducational services.
Last said he “absolutely” supports the amendment.
“We really have no choice about that, because we’re at a point where the sales tax is all gone because of the demand,” Last said. “I think that’s going to be about $850 million between programs for children and programs for individuals with disabilities. … I support it 100%.”
With all of the money collected into public education, Billings said he felt there should be a way to open it up and negotiate its use for specific items the sales tax covers.
“I’m glad to see the Legislature has done that,” Billings said. “I really believe and support getting into that education fund for certain specific things.”
Both men were asked about infrastructure challenges facing Washington County, as it remains one of the country’s fastest growing areas. Last and Billings both felt Washington County’s planners were up to the challenge, yet also said the Lake Powell Pipeline was a crucial piece of the infrastructure puzzle needed to sustain continuing growth.
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