Election 2020: Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. On Staying In Utah, Tax Reform And Doubling The GDP
Utah has the first open seat for governor 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 Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. about his vision for Utah.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sonja Hutson: What sets you apart from the other candidates?
Jon Huntsman: I would say experience, having served as governor before of the great state of Utah and probably exposure to politics and business at a national and international level. I would make the argument that in order to get out of the hole that we're in and prepare for the next decade, a combination of all the above is going to be needed. Somebody who's been in the trenches, who's pulled the levers of power at the state level and who has a network of relationships and knowledge of how the marketplace and how relationships work.
SH: The next governor will be tasked with helping the state recover economically from this pandemic. If you're elected, how would you approach that when taking office in January?
JH: I would bring to the table a template of economic development that would focus on three specific industries that I think have the capacity to double our state's GDP. I think the industries that are likely to succeed — and those in which we're probably underperforming somewhat — would include biotechnology, and health sciences more broadly, because of cures for human disease and the extension of human life as we know it will very much be a part of the decades to come. It'd be great if we could do it here. They're high paying jobs. We've got the workforce for it. We've got the universities.
The second would be financial technology. That is doing here basically what Charlotte, North Carolina, has done in building themselves up as an international financial hub out of nowhere, effectively.
The third would be more defense technology. Cyber is going to be a huge business. Issues around next generation warfare issues, which the state is uniquely positioned to do given Hill Air Force Base and some of our other military capacity.
Those are three industries in particular, each of which I think is worth probably over time $100 billion in terms of what it could bring to growth here in the state. But most importantly, it really does create a foundation for high paying jobs and allow people the freedom to stay here as opposed to go someplace else in search of opportunity should they want to do that.
SH: You've been criticized for leaving the state in the midst of the Great Recession to serve as ambassador to China under President Obama. How do you address that concern and how long do you want to be governor for this time?
JH: Well, the Great Recession ran from ‘07 to ‘09. I was asked by President Obama in ‘09 to serve. Governor Leavitt left to serve his country. Governor Dern left to become Secretary of War. This happens from time to time and it's a very, very difficult decision to make.
I have said repeatedly that we're here to stay. My federal service is done. Period. End of conversation.
I'm a term limits guy, so I'm not looking at staying beyond a couple of terms. I think that's probably good for anybody. I want to make it perfectly clear we're here to stay. We went to serve our country. We have done our federal service. And the most important work we could do going forward is right here in the state.
SH: When you were governor in 2007, you tackled tax reform and the state adopted a flat income tax rate of 5% and cut the food tax 1.75%. Last year, the Legislature passed a tax reform package and then they repealed it in January after a referendum gathered enough signatures to get on the ballot. You've said tax reform is still needed. Why is that? And what changes should be made to address voters’ concerns about the last attempt?
JH: I think tax reform will always be needed. You never reach the promised land on tax reform. And the reason that is the case is because every state in our neighborhood and our region — they're constantly fine tuning their own tax code. They're always trying to become more competitive. They're trying to bring in more investment. So there's no reason why we should stay flat-footed. Our income tax rate just being under 5%, basically the same tax code that we achieved over a decade ago, is still pretty competitive, although we're surrounded by states that have zero income tax.
I wanted to take the sales tax off food in total. I wasn't able to get it done all the way. And that's something I'd like to change. I'd like to get the sales tax completely off food.
Part of the problem with the last round of tax reform late last year is they just did not allow for public interaction and transparency before they closed the book and ran it to a vote. So anything going forward, I suspect, is going to be a long term process and one that's going to require a lot of public input.
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