Utah gubernatorial candidates Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Chris Peterson both pledged that they would oppose a food tax increase if the Utah State Legislature proposed one but clashed with one another on the subject of education funding during a debate Tuesday evening.
During the debate, which was hosted by the Utah Debate Commission, Cox — the Republican candidate — said he was opposed to a sales tax increase lawmakers passed in December that would have increased the state tax on food products from 1.75% to 4.85%. Lawmakers repealed the tax reform bill following widespread public opposition.
“I thought it was a huge mistake at the time, and I said as much,” Cox said, noting that his running mate, Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, voted against the tax reform.
“And it (voting against the bill) was the right thing to do because it is a regressive tax, and it is very difficult for our low-income families, our seniors who are on a fixed income, to be able to pay those extra taxes,” he said. “That is not the way that we should do business here in Utah.”
Peterson, a business law professor at the University of Utah and the Democrat in the governor’s race, agreed that the food tax increase was problematic.
“I would have never supported that,” Peterson said. “Not only would I have marched down there and tried to negotiate a better deal, I also would have vetoed that bill. And they would have had to pass it over my veto.”
But the candidates disagreed when asked about education funding and Amendment G, a ballot measure that would allow income tax revenue, which is earmarked for fund public education, and intangible property tax revenue to be used to support programs for children and people with disabilities.
On Sept. 7, the Utah Citizens’ Counsel wrote that Amendment G was a “seriously flawed proposal (that) will expand the use of income tax revenues from solely public- and higher-education to noneducational uses … further eroding the state’s half-hearted commitment to education.”
Peterson said he was opposed to the ballot measure and concerned it “create competitions between disabled people and the public school kids.”
“Let’s just fund both of them,” said Peterson, pointing out that Utah ranks last in the country in per-pupil spending.
Cox said it was “absolutely critical that education funding is our first and foremost priority” and that “there were promises that were made to teachers, to educators to parents during the negotiations on Amendment G.”
“And as your governor, I will make sure that those promises are kept,” Cox said. “It’s absolutely critical that education funding is our first and foremost priority.”
“I think at this point, I think the deal has been broken,” Peterson pushed back. “And I’m going to vote against Amendment G.”
The candidates agreed with one another at many other points throughout the debate, including economic development, air quality and population growth.
Both pointed to telework, investment in broadband internet and improvement of public transportation infrastructure as ways to increase economic opportunities in rural Utah and prevent congestion in Salt Lake and Utah counties.
The two candidates gave similar responses when asked how to improve public trust in law enforcement in the wake of nationwide protests over police shootings. Cox said reforming use of force guidelines and implementing racial bias training were ways to improve public trust, while Peterson pointed to increasing mental health resources and community involvement.
Cox and Peterson diverged, again, on the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic and how to address surges in positive cases in Utah County and other parts of the state.
Peterson said he would impose a statewide mask mandate “with some reasonable exceptions,” while Cox said the decision is best left up to local officials.
“I support where we are today, I support what Gov. Herbert has chosen to do: leaving mask mandates to individual communities to make that decision,” the lieutenant governor said.
Cox defended the state’s pandemic response and said officials were “making incredibly difficult decisions” based on the recommendations of medical and health professionals.
Peterson said Utah needed “better leadership on this virus” and noted that low-income health resources had been closed in Provo, Ogden and Salt Lake City due to a lack of funding.
“I agree that we’ve had some successes,” Peterson said. “But we also have had some real challenges.”
Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 801-344-2599.