SALT LAKE CITY — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the Republican candidate for governor, claimed Wednesday he has “no choice” but to support Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision not to issue a mask mandate to help stop the spread of COVID-19, but Democratic opponent Chris Peterson insisted it’s needed now more than ever.
The state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was a focus during an hourlong virtual “Informed Decisions 2020” forum on the governor’s race, featuring separate interviews of Cox and Peterson by Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, that were streamed on YouTube.
Both candidates were asked about Herbert’s decision to leave imposing mask mandates up to local authorities.
On Tuesday, the governor returned Provo and Orem to a higher level of restrictions following a spike in cases attributed largely to BYU and Utah Valley University students, but did not order masks be worn. Late Tuesday, the Utah County Commission put a countywide mask mandate in place through Oct. 20.
Even Cox’s running mate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, had come out in favor of a mask mandate in Utah County and said she supported the governor taking action if local officials failed to address hot spots in the state.
But Cox, who has previously said Herbert asked him not to “get in front” of him on the issue, once again stopped short of saying what he would have done had he been governor.
“I’m still the lieutenant governor and I have no choice but to agree with the actions of the governor. Look, I think there is wisdom in that,” Cox said of Herbert’s approach, adding that the situation “certainly is different in different parts of the state and we can work closely together to make the right decisions together.”
Cox said “the governor has been very clear that on the mask mandate side, he wants to leave that to the local officials to make that decision, but he was able to apply pressure in that case by saying he thinks it’s a good idea and highly recommends it.”
Giving local authorities “incentive” by warning the additional restrictions placed on Provo and Orem could be extended to the rest of the county is a “type of leadership that has been very effective on lots of issues in the past,” Cox said. He said he was “grateful” the Utah County Commission then stepped up.
“The governor isn’t a dictator,” Cox said, describing the emergency powers available to the office as “unsustainable over a long period of time.” That requires bringing together local officials as well as state lawmakers and school leaders, he said. “That is a balancing act.”
Peterson, who was interviewed first, pointed out he called for a statewide mask mandate back in July.
“I know that’s not popular in some circles, but I believe it’s critical to keep people safe in this state. The science is irrefutable now that if we don’t put masks on, that we’re putting not just ourselves but others at risk. I think it’s more important to do that now than ever,” the U. law professor said.
Citing “skyrocketing” cases — reaching a rolling seven-day average for positive tests of 876 per day as of Wednesday — Peterson said although “generally speaking, my philosophy is to work with respect and as a team with local governments and to defer to them whenever possible,” this is different.
In situations such as natural disasters and emergencies, he said, “it is appropriate for the governor’s office to take direct steps to try to protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens. So I believe it’s critical for us in this dangerous time, while there’s an epidemic on, for masks to be worn statewide.”
That doesn’t rule out “some reasonable exceptions,” Peterson said. “No one is suggesting if you’re a farmer or a rancher out in the middle of 30 acres that you have to have a mask on. But I do believe it’s important as a matter of public safety for the governor’s office to lead directly.”
The forum, part of a series put together with the university’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, also touched on other issues including a proposed amendment to the Utah Constitution on the November ballot to allow state income tax collections, now earmarked only for education, to also be used to support children and people with disabilities.
Cox said he initially opposed the amendment but now backs it.
He said state lawmakers have “been able to play a little bit of a shell game” with the constitutional guarantee that income taxes go to schools because of a previous change expanding the definition of education to include colleges and universities.
“There has been this siphoning off over time,” Cox said, as higher education needs were paid for out of income taxes to free up sales tax revenues for transportation and other expenses. But most higher education spending has now been shifted to the income tax fund and growth in sales tax revenues have lagged.
What’s important now, Cox said, is keeping the promise of increased funding for public schools made to get the Utah Education Association and other groups on board with the constitutional change. As governor, he said he will make sure the Legislature honors that commitment as the economy improves.
Peterson said he is still making up his mind about the amendment but called it “a step in the wrong direction.”
He said he’s likely to vote against it because the increased funding for schools pledged hasn’t materialized, given the pandemic.
“I don’t feel like the deal was honored. I want more funding for our kids,” Peterson said.
He said he wants to see a return to a progressive state income tax system so that wealthier Utahns pay a higher rate than low- and moderate-income residents. Utah moved to a single-rate system under former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., with what’s now a 4.95% rate compared to as much as 7% under the old system.
“I do not support the flat income tax that we adopted in this state several years back. I believe it was one of the biggest mistakes we made for public education funding,” Peterson said. “A single mom with three kids who’s just barely getting by pays the same income tax rate as a multimillionaire.”
He said expecting more from those who have more comes from the Bible, and is “not some wild-eyed notion, some liberal notion” but one most Utahns would endorse. What he called a regressive overall tax system for Utahns with less is “immoral,” promising to “fight to make it go in the other direction” to bring in more money for schools.