Six Republican candidates for Utah governor sparred in a debate Friday at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit. It largely focused on how best to manage the state’s growth and highlighted the conversation about political insiders and outsiders.
A question from moderator and Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts about tax breaks to out of state companies moving to Utah set off a spirited debate about the future of that practice. The incentives have been criticized for giving an unfair advantage to out of state companies over Utah-based businesses.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox argued that during the Great Recession, those tax breaks from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development helped the state’s economy recover, but now that the state’s unemployment is at 2.3%, the state doesn’t need to use taxpayer money in that way.
“They don’t need an incentive to come here because of what we’ve done,” Cox said. “We are not the same state we were 10 years ago.”
When pushed on why he hasn’t changed the tax incentive program, Cox said he has been trying, but “there are a lot of interests that are aligned” against him. He added that he’s been working with lawmakers to bring forward a bill this legislative session that would provide incentives to local businesses.
“You can’t say that you’re helping all the good things happening with this Herbert administration and then when pressed on that question about ‘what about these incentives going forward?’ say that I don’t have the influence,” former Speaker of the Utah House Greg Hughes quipped back.
“It’s ironic that this would be coming from the Speaker of the House who actually does legislation and didn’t get anything done on that,” Cox rebutted.
GOED was started under former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s administration. Huntsman said at that time, “it was the hottest thing we had going for us,” but said now, it’s probably worth reviewing to make it leaner and more agile.
Businessman Jeff Burningham circled back to the GOED question later in the debate, using it to bolster his argument that Utah needs an entrepreneur and a political outsider as governor.
“There are not a thousand government programs that could create what you, the entrepreneurs of Silicon Slopes, have created,” Burningham said. “Politicians are enablers of the political systems that have made them while entrepreneurs are disruptors of the status quo and make greater opportunities for us all.”
Real estate executive Thomas Wright is also branding himself as an outsider candidate. He has not held elected office, but did serve as the chair of the Utah Republican Party and a member of the Republican National Committee.
“I’m the disruptor in this race and I’m the startup,” he said, drawing a comparison between himself and start up tech companies. “When you’re the startup … you have the great ideas and you know you have the energy and the passion to make it happen.”
Huntsman, Cox and Hughes all leaned on their political experience while discussing tax incentives, and when asked about housing affordability in the face of enormous population growth, Salt Lake County councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton did the same.
Winder Newton said she served eight years on the Taylorsville Planning Commission.
“During that time we had to put together a comprehensive plan for growth ... and I did that,” Winder Newton said. “And it’s something I want to bring to the governor’s office. We have got to get our arms around these growth issues.”
In a recent Salt Lake Tribune/Suffolk University poll of Republican voters, Huntsman is at the head of the pack with 25.6%, Cox comes in behind him at 17.5% and Hughes has 6.5% of the voters support. Burningham, Winder Newton, and Wright all hover around 1%. But, 47.6% of surveyed voters are still undecided.
Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson