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Candidates for Utah Governor talk water, environment, economy during online forum

SALT LAKE CITY – Five candidates vying to be Utah’s next governor–four Republicans and one Democrat–outlined their plans for the state during an online forum. 

The Envision Utah forum was hosted by KSL’s Doug Wright and focused on a variety of topics, including the environment, water, and how to grow opportunities for people living in rural Utah. 

Former Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. (R) addressed Utah’s growing population and climate change, saying the state needs to do a better job building up it’s water infrastructure. Huntsman believes Utah has a water distribution problem, not a water capacity problem, and pointed to the Colorado River as an example. 

“We’re limited in taking it because we don’t have the right kind of infrastructure, the tunnels and pipelines that we need. Look at what Denver has done. They have outdone us, out-built us in terms of their ability to get water to a city that is well over 5 million people,” Huntsman said. 

Former Utah Speaker of the House Greg Hughes (R-Draper) believes spreading the economic growth around the state will help air quality, as people will not have to drive as far to get a job. 

“You go to Tooele County [and] 80% of their workforce drives between the Oquirrh Mountains and the Great Salt Lake to get into Salt Lake County to find employment. For air quality purposes, we have to see the economic development grow throughout the whole state,” Hughes said. 

Chris Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah and the only Democrat in the race, calls climate change the biggest challenge this generation faces. 

“In the short term…we need to make sure that Tier 3 gasoline is getting used in a broader spectrum in our vehicles across the state. We need to invest in a faster transition to plug in, hybrid, and electric vehicles. We need to invest more of our infrastructure development dollars into mass transit,” Peterson said. 

On the topic of education, there was broad support for paying teachers more. Hughes also believes the current pandemic will encourage more families to give home schooling a try, while Huntsman wants to lower costs at colleges and universities by charging less for online-only classes. Peterson wants to raise taxes on the wealthy to increase per-pupil spending at public schools.

The challenges facing rural Utahns were another topic the candidates talked about. 

Former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright said rural and tourist areas are worried about climate change impacting the snowpack, which could also hurt their economy. He’d also like the state to do something to get young people to live and work in rural towns, specifically by connecting people to broadband internet. 

“There are many counties that never came out of the last recession. They’re not experiencing economic growth…We need to make sure that we are connecting to the internet. Why are we building hundreds of millions of dollars of buildings all over the state if we’re not connecting rural Utah to the internet? We’ve seen in this [COVID-19] pandemic how important connectivity is,” Wright said. 

Current Lt. Governor Spencer Cox (R) agreed with Wright about connectivity, saying it allows people to work from home and brings high paying jobs to rural areas. 

“Broadband is the great equalizer. It gives everyone in rural Utah the same opportunities to compete in a world marketplace as those on the Wasatch Front,” Cox said. 

Cox also pointed out how teleworking has cut costs for the state and increased productivity.