PROVO — In a primary between two candidates who basically view the world in the same way, sometimes you have to lift the tablecloth's edges to find differences.
Friday, before the Provo-Orem Chamber of Commerce, gubernatorial candidates Nolan Karras and Jon Huntsman Jr. debated for an hour on a variety of subjects. But they clearly disagreed on only two:
Karras would not repeal the sales tax on food, as Huntsman suggests, saying Utah faces too many funding crises over the next four years.
Huntsman would junk the state Board of Regents, the governor-appointed body that now oversees the state's 10 colleges and universities. Karras is the current chairman of the regents.
Yes, the two Republicans say they have different styles, different experiences, each bringing different strengths to a job held by Republicans since 1985.
They may even have different top priorities but only slightly different.
Karras says education is the most important issue, with good public and higher education systems being the driving force for Utah's much-needed economic development.
Huntsman switches those items around. A revitalized state economic development program will lead to the tax revenues required to deal with 145,000 new public education students and bulging college enrollments, he says.
While state budgets will remain tight, Huntsman said that with new tax revenues coming from better collections on Internet sales, closing sales tax exemption "loopholes" and other pots, money can be found to "phase in" the reduction of state sales tax "on the most basic of (food) staples.
"We must review the burdens on the elderly and working families," said Huntsman.
But Karras says there are just too many demands now on critical state programs such as public education.
"If Jon indemnifies" — holds harmless — local governments, some of whom would see their budgets crash if they lost much of the sales tax from local grocery stores, "there will only be more pain at the state level and higher education, too, will be harmed."
Huntsman, whose mother used to serve as a regent, said more power should be given to university presidents and the appointed trustee boards that govern each institution. The larger board "should be eliminated eventually."
Karras defended the regents' actions, which he has overseen the past several years.
Just as the former Utah legislator commented that it would be wrong-headed to have each institution up at the Legislature lobbying for more money, pitting one against the other, the lights in the Provo Marriott ballroom flickered and dimmed.
"Is that an omen?" joked Karras.
The failing lights "speaks volumes on the Board of Regents' " activities, Huntsman joked back.
Higher education governance is working well now, said Karras. Institutional trustees are getting more authority from regents. "It would be a terrible mistake" to eliminate the master board, said Karras.
Some of the men's agreements:
Both said the state's tax system must be overhauled, after a thorough study.
Personal income tax brackets have not been adjusted for inflation since the mid-1970s, said Karras, a certified public accountant and financial adviser. But Utahns must understand that any changes "would be revenue-neutral." As taxes went up for some, for others they would go down, making the system more fair.
Utah County has been overlooked in recent years, both men said. The state's transportation priorities must be reviewed, with more money coming to I-15 expansion in Utah County. Utah Valley State College will become a full university, both said, and other higher education institutions must learn from UVSC's "efficient" education of students.
To provide for growth, both men said, water must be conserved and projects built that will yearly capture all of Utah's Colorado River allotments. Both men favor building a pipeline, estimated to cost $300 million, from Lake Powell to Washington County to provide more water for the arid southwest corner of the state.
Both said more money must be spent to develop tourism. With Colorado spending $20 million on tourism marketing, Utah's less-than $1 million budget "has taken us out of the game in tourism now," said Huntsman.
Who really is better qualified to be governor? each was asked.
Karras said he can only talk about himself, "and you sort it out. I've had 30 years in business. I've been a CPA, a CEO and a CFO. I can run a company." And being governor is really about running an efficient, large company.
"I have had as much or more experience than anyone who has been governor" in recent times. "I will make sure you get value for your money, make government accountable," he said.
Huntsman said Utah's government "has grown a little tired." But solutions are not steeped in the past, but in the future. He has six children in public schools now and knows those challenges. "It's time for a new generation of problem-solving. The election is about the future, not the past."
For all the agreements, however, there's still a growing edge to the campaign.
Karras had to supply the coin for a coin toss to decide who spoke first. Huntsman didn't have any change, sparking a lighthearted exchange.
"He ribs me about being the rich one, but I didn't have any money," Huntsman said.
Not carrying any cash on him, so others had to pony up, is "why you are the rich one," Karras quipped.
Friday evening, Karras and Gary Herbert, Huntsman's lieutenant governor running mate, faced off at another debate at West Point Junior High School sponsored by the Davis County Republican Party and Davis County Republican Women.
Karras began by pointing out that Huntsman scheduled himself to attend only one of four debates held from Thursday through today.
"I hope it's clear to you by what candidates are here that we're willing to come where we need to be and be accountable to the public. I'm sorry this isn't important to Jon," Karras said.
The evening debate began a half-hour late after Herbert arrived from Salt Lake City. In his opening statement, Herbert stressed the importance of increasing the amount of privately owned land in the state.
"As a land developer, I respect private property rights. Privately owned land is the fundamental arena for wealth creation which creates jobs," he said.
Karras spent his entire 15-minute opening statement outlining his plan for saving Hill Air Force Base from closure.
Contributing: Andrew Kirk