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Utah governor hopefuls square off in nontraditional debate before record tech summit crowd

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Businessman Jeff Burningham, left, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright participate in a gubernatorial debate during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A record crowd at the fourth annual Silicon Slopes Tech Summit Friday set the stage for a debate among the top six Utah gubernatorial candidates, as they were each asked to tackle questions tailored to them.

Jeff Burningham, Spencer Cox, Greg Hughes, Jon Huntsman Jr., Aimee Winder Newton and Thomas Wright took the stage at the Salt Lake Palace Convention Center stage for the first debate in the 2020 gubernatorial race. Summit organizers invited only candidates who have raised at least $50,000 in their campaigns.

Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts moderated the event, which followed a format that dispensed with opening and closing statements and followed a flow of directed questions and answers that appeared to match topics with candidates.

While each candidate got their own questions to respond to, one issue united all six of the people on stage.

Their support of President Donald Trump.

While Betts noted Cox’s occasional criticisms of the president, Utah’s lieutenant governor said he was ultimately supportive of Trump and, later, when the question was addressed to the full slate of candidates, all acknowledged their support of the president.

Responding to a question about his opposition to the Legislature’s failed tax reform effort, tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jeff Burningham said that “it’s never smart to tax business input” and called for simplifying the tax code, not adding complexity to the process.

“We do not have a revenue problem,” Burningham said. “Entrepreneurs have ensured that we do not have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.”

Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes was asked about his promise to make gun-related legislation a priority in 2018 following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida and the need for a special session to address the issue, which never occurred.

“While there wasn’t a special session … great ideas were proffered, common ground was found,” Hughes said. “This is an ongoing issue. I would not say we did nothing.”

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a prolific Twitter poster, fielded a question that went to his use of technology in general and social media in specific.

“I ran a tech company for 10 years,” Cox noted. “Tech gives us an opportunity to connect with people. I get to have a town hall every day ... I get to listen to people and share our message.

“I used to worry about my Twitter account until we got a new president.”

Betts cited former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr.’s support of a failed attempt to institute a school voucher program — an effort roundly rejected by voters in 2017 — and asked if it was still an issue he was behind.

“There is no more powerful a word in education than choice,” Huntsman said. “This will be my approach and it will be my mantra ... individualized education.”

Huntsman went on to detail his belief that issuing tablet computers to every student would help advance education outcomes in the state.

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton got to weigh in on how she would address Utah’s current challenges with maintaining an inventory of affordable housing opportunities.

Winder Newton said the decision to remove planning from what is now the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget was a mistake and, as governor, she would reverse that decision

“I’m going to bring that planning component back,” Winder Newton said.

She also said that successfully navigating the state’s continued population growth will also require giving local governments more authority over managing and overseeing growth issues at that level.

Betts noted Thomas Wright was the only candidate to have already named a running mate, outgoing GOP Rep. Rob Bishop, and asked about the decision to make the move early.

“Rob Bishop called and asked me if I would accept his endorsement,” Wright explained. “As I spoke to him I realized the candidate I was most afraid of running against was talking to me.

“I didn’t make a political decision at a convention ... I made a decision based on who would be the best lieutenant governor for the state of Utah.”

The efficacy of a program run by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development that offers post-performance tax rebates to companies that invest and create jobs in the state, rose as one of the few issues that got responses from multiple candidates.

Betts asked Cox about criticisms that have been leveled against the GOED program that question why the state is offering tax breaks to out-of-state companies, perhaps to the detriment of Utah companies looking to expand.

“I’m one of those people critical of GOED,” Cox said. “Why on earth would we be giving away tax income to companies to come here at 2.6% unemployment? Why would we be giving away taxpayer dollars for that?”

Betts followed up, pressing Cox on what he’s done to change that. While Cox indicated he did not have that level of influence as lieutenant governor, Hughes jumped on the response.

“You can’t say that you’re owning all the good things that are happening and then, when pressed, say you don’t have the influence, Hughes said. “GOED has ... to change now. Words have to match what we’re doing.”

Huntsman was also roped into the exchange, as the GOED program was created during his time in office. The former governor said the effort was launched at a time of significantly different economic conditions and intended to create a “safe haven for capital” investment, but said the program was “probably ready for review.”

Other notable moments included Hughes reiterating his support of the Utah Inland Port effort, Cox committing to dedicating more resources to address the state’s high youth suicide rate, and Winder Newton’s promise to address the teacher shortage.

Neighbor co-founder and CEO Joseph Woodbury said he was happy to watch a debate that stepped away from the typical format and stayed focused on particular issues rather than the individual candidates’ platforms.

“I think the genius of this debate, and props to Clint (Betts) for the idea, was coming out hard on all of them,” Woodbury said. “I was glad they didn’t take a single-issue approach where they pose a questions and everyone weighs in. “

Onetime gubernatorial candidate and Overstock.com CEO Jonathan Johnson said he was glad to see that at least a portion of the candidates came from outside the political sphere.

“Four years ago, I ran as an outsider and I’ve got a lot of respect for what Jeff (Burningham) and Thomas (Wright) are doing,” Johnson said. “I think that hill to climb is pretty hard.”

Johnson, like Woodbury, said he also appreciated questions that were directed at individual candidates that didn’t hold back.

“I thought Clint’s questions were fair and hard-hitting,” Johnson said. “We need more of these debates.”

Governor’s Office of Economic Development Executive Director Val Hale also had a moment to speak following the square-off that ended up featuring issues related to his agency.

Hale noted while he’s heard similar criticisms of post-performance rebates going to out-of-ƒstate companies, he said a solid majority of the recipients are based in Utah.

“The overwhelming majority of (Economic Development Tax Increment Financing) awards go to Utah companies,” Hale said. “The ratio is 2 out of every 3 companies are from here in the state. If you look closer, the majority of those recipients also come from our tech sector.”

Data from a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll released Friday shows marked separation of the top two candidates in the gubernatorial race from the rest of the field, but a full quarter of respondents — which included Republicans and some non-Republicans likely to participate in the primary — told pollsters they were undecided.

Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, captured 33% of Republicans who say they are very likely to vote in the GOP primary election. Cox followed with 25%. All of the other candidates were in single digits, none higher than Burningham’s 5%.