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Candidates for governor say Utah poised to take larger role in global economy post-pandemic

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright participate a Utah gubernatorial Republican primary debate at the PBS Utah studio at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 1, 2020.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright participate a Utah gubernatorial Republican primary debate at the PBS Utah studio at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 1, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The four Republican gubernatorial candidates on the June primary ballot all see opportunities for Utah in the global market in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic but also said Thursday there’s work that the next governor will need to do to make that happen.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright participated separately in a 1 1/2-hour forum on KSL Newsradio’s “Inside Sources” program hosted by Boyd Matheson, Deseret News opinion editor.

Utah World Trade Center President and CEO Miles Hansen, who helped moderate the forum, said international trade and investments already support nearly 1 in 4 jobs in Utah, and for the past two years the state has had the highest export growth rate in the nation.

Cox said he has met with hundreds of international officials as lieutenant governor, receiving more such visitors than any other state Utah’s size. Utah has an “incredible legacy” of global influence, he said, including as the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and host of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

“We are also a state built on foreign immigrants. We understand foreign cultures because they are literally part of our DNA,” Cox said, referring to his own ancestors who came to Utah from England because of their faith and the ability to create their own opportunities.

Now, he said, Utah is the best-positioned state to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis.

But the state must focus on preparing businesses to compete internationally as well as recruiting companies, Cox said, to benefit from what he called a “manufacturing renaissance” in the United States that will prevent the type of supply chain breakdown seen during the pandemic in China and other countries.

Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China and Russia, talked about establishing the state’s world trade center as governor because no state can prosper without being engaged globally. That, however, is “just scratching the surface,” he said.

By establishing Utah as “the crossroads of the world,” Huntsman said the state can become a “go-to market” post-pandemic, standing out while “surrounded by a sea of confusion and instability (by) marketing ourselves as the center of calm, predictability, regulations that aren’t onerous, taxes that are low.”

The state should be planning a decade into the future as the inland port takes shape to become an “export dynamo,” he said, and a leader in the finance, biotechnology and defense industries.

That will take a new look at Utah’s tax and regulatory structures, Huntsman said. He said Utah still has the same flat income tax rate system he helped put in place years ago and while it remains competitive, it still “needs to be worked on,” just as regulations need to be reviewed to determine their impact on business growth.

Hughes also brought up the state’s predominant faith that encourages members to learn new cultures as missionaries as well as school language immersion programs as putting the “pioneering state” of Utah in the best position to take advantage of new international business.

The former speaker praised President Donald Trump’s trade agreements with China as well as other nations and said Utahns should be taking greater advantage of what he described as pushing for fair treatment for American businesses.

A longtime proponent of the inland port, Hughes touted it as tying together the state’s strong existing transportation system to become a major importer as well as exporter in the world.

Hughes said, however, Utah’s economy has to be allowed to recover from the impacts of the coronavirus. He said there are still restrictions on business and gatherings that are attempts “to trickle out this economy. You can’t burn down the village to save the village. We have to let people get back to work.”

Wright said the pandemic has taught a lesson that should have been “learned a long time ago, and that is reliance on a hostile country for critical raw materials and products is a recipe for disaster,” warning it threatens not only the response to the health care crisis but also the nation’s military readiness and ability to manufacture goods.

He said the state should be doing more to promote its technology, biomedical, defense and natural resources industries globally and said there are “great opportunities” in places like Central and South America for medical devices.

Rural Utah should be a priority, Wright said, suggesting those parts of the state could get a boost from the inland port and any satellite operations.

His plans as governor start with getting retraining for Utahns put out of work by the pandemic to fill needed trade positions and also includes expanding infrastructure investment in the state, particularly in rural areas.