The state’s falling short in ensuring air is breathable, teachers are paid, public land isn’t sold off to the highest bidder and sick people who could use medical pot have access to it, according to Mike Weinholtz, Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
A long shot to upset incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert, Weinholtz cited hot-button issues as the reason he is more suited to run the state’s highest office than his Republican rival.
From Herbert’s vantage point, however, the state’s healthy economy reflects on his leadership, particularly in light of the tough economic straits Utah faced during the Great Recession when Herbert took the helm in 2009 after his predecessor, Jon Huntsman Jr., was appointed to be the Ambassador of China.
“It is currently one of the best, most diverse economies in America today,” Herbert said, “in good old Utah.”
The two gubernatorial candidates separately took questions at a town hall forum on Tuesday from Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute, who also read several submitted questions from the audience.
The price for a funded education system, in Weinholtz estimation, is a slight tax hike earmarked for schools. Year-to-year upticks in education spending are meager and only allow the state to keep up with a growing number of students in schools.
“No one is proud of the fact that we’re 51st in the country for our education funding,” he said. “Especially in a state where we are so family friendly. We value our children. We value our families.”
Weinholtz said the teacher retention rate could be improved with a salary bump, as with a shift in the mindset of state leaders, who he believes undervalue educators. “Our teachers are made out to be scapegoats for any education failures that we have,” he said, “rather than underfunding, which I believe is the real problem.”
Herbert, on the other hand, said that while it’s true the state doesn’t spend as much on education as other states, education results are promising.
Improvements in graduation rates and test scores, are indicators of a succeeding system. Herbert agreed that teachers receive too much criticism. But, he said, teacher retention in a robust economy is difficult because educators leave the profession for more lucrative options. Utah’s much publicized need for educators, Herbert argued, is actually a countrywide problem.
“It’s a misrepresentation of facts, that the teacher shortage is a Utah-only thing,” he said.
An ongoing push for the federal government to relinquish control of public lands to the state has forged on into the courtrooms with an estimated $14 million price tag to the taxpayers for a suit that many in the legal community have suggested is unwinnable. Weinholtz said the efforts are foolhardy, and the endgame would cut off access to outdoor enthusiasts.
“I don’t think any Utahn wants to see a ‘No trespassing’ sign on one of their favorite places that they’re used to going because we’ve sold it off or leased it to an oil and gas company,” he said.
Although the state is nearly split down the middle, according to polling numbers cited by Perry, Weinholtz said he supports designating Bears Ears a national monument, based on conversations he said he’s had with Native American tribal leaders.
Herbert said a federal land transfer, which he asserted has historically seen bipartisan support, would not lead to privatization of public lands. The state, he argued, would be better suited to manage the land for multiple uses.
“The [Bureau of Land Management] is chartered to have an ‘all of the the above’ approach, and it seems kind of tilted to just all tourism and travel at the exclusion of farming, ranching, and industry and energy development and extraction,” he said.
While agreeing that Bears Ears needs protection, Herbert favors created a national conservation area to the more restrictive national monument designation.
The democratic challenger said he stands with 71 percent of Utahns who support medical marijuana. Despite growing support, a legislative committee killed a medical marijuana bill last session. A growing number of states have legalized marijuana and regulate it like alcohol, but Weinholtz doesn’t want Utah added to that list.
“Not recreational, however,” he added. “I think recreational is a bit too far for Utah.”
Blaming the administration of President Barack Obama, Herbert supports research to determine the medicinal properties of pot. First, he argued, the federal government needs to reclassify marijuana, which remains a Schedule 1 drug.
Weinholtz called Utah’s air quality a public health crisis. “We have to incentivize environmentally friendly buildings, cars, appliances,” he said.
To address inversion, Herbert noted 31 new laws passed. He also met with refinery companies to encourage the use of cleaner fuels.
“We have lower pollution levels now than we had 15 years ago, or anytime previous,” he said.