ST. GEORGE — Education and the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were among the points highlighted during a debate between Utah’s gubernatorial candidates Tuesday night.
Republican Gov. Spencer Cox and his Democratic challenger, law professor Chris Peterson, met on a stage in Salt Lake City to share their responses and visions for Utah.
“Tonight was our second gubernatorial debate,” Cox said over Twitter. “I want to thank Chris Peterson — he’s a great debater and an even better person. We disagree on some things and agree on many others. Not sure what’s happening in that ‘other’ debate, but grateful that Utah can be an example to the nation.”
The two candidates are competing to succeed Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who isn’t running again after more than a decade in office. Cox, who became Herbert’s lieutenant governor in 2013, defeated three other Republicans during the June primary, including former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. Peterson did not have a primary race.
Cox is heavily favored to win in conservative Utah, where voters haven’t elected a Democratic governor in 40 years.
A central focus of the debate was the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s handling of it. Cox touted how well Utah has done in handling the virus when compared to other states, while Peterson took a more critical view and said the state’s leadership in the matter hadn’t been the best. They also exchanged differences of opinion over the implementation of a statewide mask mandate.
“Mask wearing is only one important part of trying to get our coronavirus situation back under control,” Peterson said. “I would impose a statewide mask mandate. … This will not last forever, but right now we need to wear masks, and that’s why I will require it as a matter of law.”
Peterson called on the state to implement a mask mandate in July. He also criticized some of the ways the state government has spent millions of dollars in responding to the pandemic. Better testing and tracing measures also needed to be undertaken, he said.
Peterson also said Utah was counted as fourth in the nation for new COVID-19 cases.
On the mask mandate, Cox said he was fine with where the state sat on the matter. Currently, a mask mandate is in place for all public schools and state facilities, and local governments have been given the OK to impose their own mask mandates if deemed necessary.
“I support where we are today,” Cox said. “I support what Gov. Herbert has chosen to do, leaving mask mandates to individual communities to make that decision.”
Moderator Doug Wright, of KSL News Radio, said the question of a statewide mask mandate was one of the major issues people told him to bring to the candidates.
“This is the number one thing that people are asking about,” he said.
There have been over 72,000 reported COVID-19 cases in Utah, and 457 people have died, according to state data. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without displaying symptoms.
When asked what else should be done to limit the spread of COVID-19, Peterson stressed the need for increased testing, contact tracing and additional access to personal protective equipment to counteract the state’s “skyrocketing” infection rates.
Cox said the governor and lieutenant governor must make tough decisions during a historic pandemic. He highlighted the state’s successes with maintaining a low mortality rate of 0.6% and a 4.1% unemployment rate.
“It hasn’t been perfect,” Cox said. “We have a long way to go, but we are working together to find those solutions.”
Funding public education was another topic in which the two candidates disagreed.
“It’s absolutely critical that education funding is our first and foremost priority,” Cox said, adding that Utah has seen the largest increase in public education funding over the last five years. “That’s something we can be proud of, but there’s so much more to do.”
Cox said a way teacher pay could be boosted is by reviewing the cost of new school construction. He called some new designs “palatial” and said that money could be given to teachers instead.
Peterson repeatedly mentioned that Utah has the lowest per-pupil funding in America. Utah has had decades to fix the issue and hasn’t done a very good job of doing it, he said, and more resources need to be added.
“We have the resources in this state to actually fund education for our kids,” Peterson said. “It’s not the Democratic Party that has failed to do that, it’s the majority party. And it’s time for a little more balance, a little more forward-thinking to get the job done.”
The candidates found common ground in supporting bringing broadband internet to rural Utah and promoted teleworking throughout the state. This tied into bringing economic development to the rest of the state, as well as a possible helping hand in addressing Utah’s ongoing affordable housing issues.
Peterson said promoting the ability to work from home, especially when that includes a high-paying job, can help people find more affordable homes away from the expensive Wasatch Front.
“This is one of those silver linings coming out of the COVID crisis – that people are realizing they can work from home and they can be incredibly successful there,” Cox said as he agreed with many of Peterson’s points on affordable housing.
Both men also said they didn’t like the idea of raising taxes and agreed that a previous attempt Legislature made to raise food tax was a bad idea. Cox called it a “big mistake” and was glad to see the measure go away due to public outcry. Peterson said if that food tax measure ever came to his desk as governor, he would immediately veto it.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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