Utah has the first open seat for governor this year since 2004 and there are four candidates vying for the Republican nomination. In the lead up to the June 30 primary, KUER is bringing voters a conversation with each of them.
Politics reporter Sonja Hutson spoke with former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes about his vision for Utah.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sonja Hutson: What sets you apart from the other candidates?
Greg Hughes: I would just say we’re the conservative ticket in this race and we're not afraid to take some very specific and hard stances. We're in some tough times and I think it is time to have some uncomfortable conversations. What are we going to prioritize as a state? Can we stay inside forever, in terms of a pandemic? Do we have to get to work? If you do, what's that look like? How do we see this whole state grow economically? Those are pretty specific discussions and I think sometimes candidates are afraid to have them because you'll get critics along the way if you're being too specific. But that's the campaign we're running. And I think that is a difference between this ticket and the others.
SH: Could you bullet point for me one or two of those specific policy proposals that you have that are more conservative than the other candidates?
GH: Through an inland port and a system of inland ports and being a link in the global supply chain, we're going to bring economic opportunity throughout the state. Seeing the growth, and the cost of housing, and the clean air issues that we're facing — all those things are addressed when we see this whole state start to see prosperity.
Again: proven record if you look at the issues that I've taken when I've been on the clock as a public servant. [I] opposed Obamacare expansion. It's a promise that really does dictate how the state spends its money. And I'm not afraid to talk about it. That's one of those issues that's conservative but will bring its criticism along the way. But I think it's an important discussion to have.
SH: And since you were Speaker, it has been fully expanded. What does Utah's Medicaid program look like in a Hughes administration?
GH: I went back to Washington, D.C. We asked for specific waivers for our state to help in behavioral health. We got waivers for that. I think there's some ways that you can surgically address Medicaid where you're not taking Obamacare expansion. Instead of Medicaid being for children and for physically and mentally disabled, it bases Medicaid on household income. In the way that Obamacare is structured, it says, “Look, whatever that cost is, the state of Utah will be responsible for 10% of that cost.” It takes away —- because you have to balance your budget — from other health and human services priorities the state would have. I think that Utahns would be very interested in learning what those areas that won't be able to be funded are and ask ourselves openly: is this an acceptable tradeoff? I would argue it's not.
SH: Would you want to roll back some of the Medicaid expansion that's already happened?
GH: Yeah, we would. We need to build that as Utahns and as duly elected people from the state and from different districts and put those priorities into building that state budget and not just adhering to the requirements or strings attached to federal funds.
SH: You've been an outspoken critic of how Governor Herbert's administration has handled the coronavirus pandemic. What specifically would you have done differently?
GH: I think that we've interrupted household income. We've closed businesses. We have this color code of the state’s trickling out of economic activity. The reality is people have bills to pay every 30 days. I think that the full weight of this pandemic is being born on the backs of working people in the state. You have to be able to — faster than we're seeing happen right now — get back to work, taking important precautions along the way.
I'm looking for the ACLU to tell me how in the world the state can shut down churches and tell them that they can't open or if they open: “Here's your dictated way that you will hold services and how people will be seated in the pews.” We've got to be vigilant. We've got to watch some of these constitutionally protected liberties we have. These things are not O.K. If a business wants to take — in fact, businesses should take — precautions, I'm not discarding the precautions people have to take. I'm discarding who gets to make that decision. The state doesn't get to dictate a lot of decisions that we're seeing.
SH: The next governor will obviously be tasked with helping the state's economy recover. How would you approach that when taking office in January?
GH: I'm telling you, we have to get back to work. We have a virus that we don't have a vaccine for. The pervasiveness of this virus is unknown. I think containing it is naive. So the way we get this economy up and running again is we talk about the things that I'm discussing with you right now and we get people back to work, understanding that it's going to be hard and that we've got to do it. There's no other pathway forward.
SH: Let's turn to education now. Utah ranks last in per-pupil spending. You have said the state should try to change that, but without raising taxes. How would you do that?
GH: The way we did [it] in 2007: We cut taxes. It amounted to about a $400 million tax cut. People said, “Look, you're taking $400 million away from education.” But what we saw is what we always see. When you see taxes cut, you see that $400 million running around in our economy. And we saw revenues rise.
For more information about the candidates for governor, check out KUER’s voter guide.
Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson