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The Utah gubernatorial candidates largely agreed about what government in Utah should be, during Thursday’s forum hosted by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. But Gov. Gary R. Herbert said the state is already doing well and needs to stay on course, while Peter Cooke contended a course correction is needed.
In his opening statement, Herbert listed his administration’s goals – economic development, education, energy and efficiency in government – and said he has made good progress toward those. “We’re not anti government, but we believe the government should be limited in our lives and efficient in the delivery of the services that we the people believe are important,” he said.
Herbert said some of his successes have been the state’s first-ever energy plan, stronger-than-national economy during a recession, public-private partnerships in education and the lowest number of public employees in 12 years.
Cooke agreed with Herbert’s desire for a strong economy, successful education and efficient government, but said the state is not doing as well as the governor said it is. With 40 years experience in the private sector, Cooke said brings a new perspective to the Capitol. “I look at government like a citizen and also a business person.”
Key indicators are in trouble, and Utah is the third fastest growing government in the nation, with high fee burdens and tax rate, and low wages and median income.
“And we continue to under fund education, which is the backbone of our economy… To me, you cannot have economic development in a state when education is behind,” Cooke said.
Education has been the number one budget priority, Herbert said. He said he fought to make tough choices and hold the line on legislative budget cuts for education, while dealing with the challenge of high birth rate and fewer taxes because much of the state is public land.
Tax cuts and infrastructure have been higher priorities, Cooke said, and Utah County residents are realizing they would rather have better schools than bigger highways. At this point, the state would need $389 million to go from 50th to 49th in per-pupil spending, he said.
When it comes to Medicaid expansion, the governor said Affordable Care Act “needs to be repealed and push the reset button.” Other than that, he said he’s not sure what the state is doing about Medicaid yet because he cannot get answers from the federal government to questions he has about specifics.
Cooke said he thinks the state has to accept the Medicaid expansion and begin preparing. “A lot of the law is already moving forward and we need to adapt to it.” Utah should accept the money from the federal government, but be allowed to manage it, he said.
Both candidates agree the Utah Compact is a good way to address immigration. Though Herbert did not sign it, he said the six immigration principles he wrote are very similar and he supports the Compact. Cooke did sign it and said he would veto legislation contrary to the Utah Compact.
When it comes to government transparency, Cooke said his military background and being a Democrat are assets. When one party has sole control, fewer people are asking questions. He said he’d use the two-party system to increase openness. He said the government is not as transparent as it should be and Utahns’ perception of lack of openness is also a problem.
“The more transparent you are, the more people will believe in government and participate,” he said.
Herbert said his administration has increased transparency, and cited an open bid process as well as transparent.utah.gov as examples of ways the state is more open.
In the end, Herbert said he should be elected for another term because he became governor at a difficult time and by working together, his administration has turned the economy around. “We’re doing some good things in this state… We’re a great place to live, to raise a family and do business.”
Cooke said he is running not only because having a Democrat in office would benefit the state by bringing in new points of view, but also that the economic development of the state and education of Utahns is in jeopardy if the state continues on the current path.