Utah has the first open seat for governor since 2004, and there are four candidates vying for the Republican nomination: Spencer Cox, Greg Hughes, Jon Huntsman Jr. and Thomas Wright. 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 Republican Party Chair Thomas Wright about his vision for Utah.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sonja Hutson: What sets you apart from the other candidates?
Thomas Wright: First of all, I've never held public elected office. And I think it's important to bring in new perspectives and new faces and bring in new ideas. I have a vision for Utah that I can bring in on day one and hit the ground running on. I believe that the handing of the baton of power back and forth to the same people isn't as good as bringing in new perspectives and fresh ideas and people that don't have all the encumbrances of the past.
SH: The next governor will obviously be tasked with helping the state's economy recover from this pandemic. How would you approach that in January when inaugurated?
TW: I have put up an economic recovery plan on my website. It's called Jumpstart and it outlines some short-term and long-term economic recovery ideas and suggestions to help get the economy back on track. That includes a suspension of the sales tax on food in the short run during the pandemic.
It also talks long-term about retraining the workforce in Utah. We have over 150,000 people in the state that have filed for unemployment. A lot of the jobs that have been lost will not come back. We need to make sure that we're using our vocational opportunities and institutions of higher education to retrain the workforce so that employees can get back on their feet and we can get the economy revved up again. And that's my expertise, is business. I'm the business person. There's no better candidate than Thomas Wright to help get the economy back on track
SH: Circling back to temporarily getting rid of the food tax, the state Legislature right now is in the midst of making some massive budget cuts because of lost tax revenue. How do you balance concerns about the state budget and lost revenues with wanting to cut down the food tax?
TW: That should be able to be covered during a hardship like we're facing in the pandemic. That's why we have a billion dollars in a rainy day fund. That's why we have a AAA bond rating that we should use modestly and wisely to give relief to our citizens who helped build the greatest state in the country. We also can cut budget items that are less important during the pandemic. Given everything that's going on, citizens, businesses, families are all tightening their belt. They're all making ends meet with less revenue. The government should be no exception. They are going to have to cut. But the reason we have a rainy day fund is for a rainy day. And I don't know about you, but I'm looking outside and it's pouring rain.
SH: What are your plans to bolster economic development in rural parts of the state?
TW: The very first thing you have to do with rural Utah is you have to pay attention to it. While I have traveled the state, I have found that local leaders uniquely understand what they need. They need a partner in state government that's talking to them regularly and helping them execute their strategic plans.
A perfect example of that is in some rural areas, you have broadband and then in other areas you don't. How are we ever going to diversify rural Utah economies when businesses can't even consider relocating there because they can't get on the internet? So that's got to be mission number one. We need to do a top-to-bottom audit of connectivity in this state and we need to make sure that everybody can get online.
And then, number two, you need to identify ways to get companies to relocate off of the Wasatch Front or when they're considering coming to Utah, positioning themselves off of the Wasatch Front, where we've been over incentivizing companies to come and under incentivizing them to go to rural Utah.
SH: Let's pivot to education now. Utah ranks last in the nation when it comes to per-pupil spending, and you've said that the state should try to change that. How would you plan on accomplishing that?
TW: For me, public education has to be a top priority and we have to do something about it. Number one, we've had a teacher shortage for a really long time in the state of Utah. All three of my opponents have been in office during that shortage. So my question is: what makes us think that anything will be different if they're elected.
The way you solve a shortage — it's a supply and demand problem — is you have to pay more. I've talked to teachers who have left ... they leave for two main reasons. They're not being paid enough, combined with how miserable it has become to be a teacher in a lot of ways because of the regulation in the classroom: the paperwork, the standardized testing.
We've got to do two main things. One, we have to support teachers by paying more. We need to make sure that we have a sufficient supply of mental health and behavioral health professionals for our teachers to lean on. And then second, we have to deregulate the classroom. We're going to have to fight for that with the federal government. But we also have to look at the state’s regulations. What are we doing every year to make it easier for teachers to teach? Getting out of their way and letting them do their job. And there's a lot of things we can do on that front.
Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson