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One GOP candidate for governor proposes suspending sales tax on food to boost economic recovery from pandemic

Other Republicans in the primary race suggest it’s not the time to cut taxes

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. answer questions during a virtual forum featuring the Republican primary gubernatorial candidates at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 7, 2020.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. answer questions during a virtual forum featuring the Republican primary gubernatorial candidates at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 7, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — GOP candidate for governor Thomas Wright called Thursday for the state and local sales tax on food to be suspended as part of the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, but none of the other three Republicans in the primary race joined him during their appearance in a virtual candidate forum.

“If it was wrong to tax food at 4.85 (percent) under the tax reform bill that was repealed, it’s wrong to tax it at 1.75 (percent), especially during times like this,” Wright said at the Salt Lake Chamber and Economic Development Corporate of Utah forum, held at the Grand America Hotel without an audience because of the outbreak.

Afterwards, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes both said this isn’t the time for a tax cut given the anticipated decline in revenues, while Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said that while he’d be willing to look at Wright’s proposal, the focus now needs to be on balancing the state budget.

Huntsman, who was governor when the state sales tax rate on food was reduced, said in an interview he still wants to see the tax removed entirely but cautioned it could take several years until the state’s economy is built back up sufficiently.

“That wouldn’t be my first order of business as governor. A goal? Absolutely,” he said. “One of my frustrations was we weren’t able to get it down to zero. I think over time we will. But during the short term, I think we’re going to have to prioritize very carefully those areas that really do deserve consistent fundings.”

Hughes told a reporter that had the forum been a debate, he would have challenged Wright.

“Look, I love cutting taxes. I do. But with no economic activity occurring and no tax collection happening as a result and looking at a state budget and a county budget and a city budget that will probably be historically short ... I just don’t think these promises match up,” he said.

Wright, a former Utah GOP chairman and businessman, referred during the debate to the January repeal of a tax reform package that reduced income taxes while raising sales taxes on food, gas and some services, saying the tax on food should be zero. The repeal came amid a citizens referendum fueled by frustration over the food tax.

“I think we heard the citizens of this state loud and clear that they are uncomfortable with the sales tax on food,” he said in an interview, suggesting expenditures could be cut to make up what he estimated to be around a $140 million revenue loss.

“We have to do what businesses and families are doing in the state. We have to identify ways to save money,” Wright said. “We need to figure out ways to live within our means in the state of Utah and our means are going to be a lot less than they have been in years past.”

Much of the 1 1/2-hour forum, the first time the four candidates who qualified for the June 30 primary ballot have been on the same stage, dealt with the economic impact of the deadly virus.

Cox, who heads the state’s COVID-19 task force, said he is “very proud” of how Utah responded.

“We’ve had hard times before in the state of Utah. In fact, our history is a history of hard times. But as Utahns, we will do what we always do, and that is rebuild together,” the lieutenant governor said. “The good news is that there is an economic recovery plan.”

Cox said he believes Utah could open up fully before any other state because of the attention to safety. But, he said, “there are far too many people who have tried to tear us apart, and tell us that you either have to focus on the economy or you have to focus on people’s health and that you can’t do both. We reject that notion.”

Utah, he said, “acted fast to prevent the spread of the virus, not just to save lives but to save our economy. The way we know that it is working is I can tell you right now, we have had dozens of governors contacting the state asking us if they could use our recovery plan.”

Hughes said Utahns have been forced from their jobs as businesses were shut down “not by an economy that’s slowed down but by government’s heavy hand.” He said when “desperate” Utahns no longer can afford to pay their bills, “they’re going back to work. The problem we face is we better get in front of that.”

Criticizing limits on gatherings and social distancing measures in place, Hughes said churchgoers’ right of assembly should be respected since faith leaders have the best interests of their congregants in mind and don’t need government intervention. Nor, he said, do local officials.

“We have to get real about this. We can keep having these state-heavy plans but if we want a public health safety plan that promotes and gets this economy started again, we’ve got to get back to some of those normalcies of constitutional liberties,” Hughes said.

Huntsman, who stepped down as governor in his second term, in 2009, to become U.S. ambassador to China and later served as U.S. ambassador to Russia, said Utah needs to become a “safe haven” as global supply chains are being broken up by the pandemic believed to have originated in China.

“It never dawned on me to this extent, nor this rapidly, that we would be confronted with an opportunity that makes me very excited about this state going forward,” he said, describing bringing some of that business back to Utah as “a really exciting thought. They’ve got to go somewhere because China has lost trust.”

He said his experience in Beijing and Moscow can benefit the state, especially combined with his previous time as governor, when “nobody will tell you that we did not hit a home run as it relates to our economic vitality agenda,” which included switching to a single, flatter state income tax rate.

Earlier Thursday, the four candidates appeared virtually at a debate sponsored by the Washington County Republican Women organization that was a little more heated over the question of how the state is handling the pandemic, with Hughes telling Cox at one point, “it was irresponsible how you handled it.”

Cox said Utah “is leading the way. We’re proud of that and Utahns should be proud of that as well.”