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Logan • Democratic gubernatorial challenger Mike Weinholtz said he offers the state "a better way" for Utah families, and Gov. Gary Herbert defended his record on education and the economy, asserting that the state is stronger now than when he took office.
Weinholtz, who owns a major medical staffing company, was on the offensive during most of Monday night's gubernatorial debate, painting Herbert as a 26-year "career politician" who is asking for "four more years of the same" and hitting the governor on education funding, failing to expand Medicaid to cover Utahns with low incomes and a proposed lawsuit demanding that the federal government relinquish control of public lands.
"I think Utah families deserve a better way forward," Weinholtz said.
Herbert parried, arguing that the economy is far better now than it was when he took office in the depths of the recession, education funding is growing and "a rising tide lifts all boats."
"I feel good about my record. I have a good record," Herbert told reporters afterward, painting the choice as one between a free-market, small-government governor and Weinholtz, whom he called "more of a traditional liberal Democrat. There's nothing wrong with that. I don't think that reflects the people of Utah."
A recent Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, conducted by Dan Jones and Associates, found that 58 percent of respondents thought Utah's economy was good, while 26 percent of respondents said it was great; 15 percent said the economy was fair, while 1 percent rated it as poor.
Weinholtz was most energetic when it came to criticizing Herbert over failing to expand Medicaid, a proposal under the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare that could have provided health coverage to 120,000 low-income Utahns.
"This is a Utah value. We believe in taking care of each other, especially those most needy among us. So the only reason that Medicaid was not expanded by our governor and our one-party Legislature was for political reasons," Weinholtz said. "It is one of the worst examples of putting party before people that I've ever seen."
"Not only was it morally bankrupt," Weinholtz said, "it was not fiscally responsible" because Utah taxpayers have lost out on nearly $1 billion in taxes paid to the federal government that could have gone to fund the program.
Herbert argued that he proposed a solution, his Healthy Utah plan, that would have used the federal money to subsidize private insurance for low-income Utahns but was blocked by the Legislature.
"I cannot do it unilaterally. I have to go through the Legislature, which has control of the purse strings," Herbert said. "You just don't understand how the system works."
On education, Weinholtz said that, despite Herbert's claims that education is his top priority, Utah classes remain overcrowded and the state continues to spend less per pupil than any other in the country.
"You can't say it's your top priority if you're not going to put your money where your mouth is," the Democrat jabbed.
Herbert, a Republican, countered by saying that education funding was falling during the recession, the cuts have stopped and now three-fourths of the state's new spending goes to education.
Under Utah's Constitution, all money from income taxes the revenue source that has been growing most rapidly is earmarked for education. His statistic also includes money spent on higher education, not just public education.
"It doesn't mean we're where we need to be, but we're on the right road and going in the right direction," Herbert said, noting that he has won the endorsement of the Utah Education Association, the state's 18,000-member teachers union.
And on public lands, Weinholtz again criticized the governor for wanting to take control of 30 million-plus acres so it can be sold off, a move that Weinholtz said undermines Utah's heritage and jeopardizes the land management.
The Legislature has proposed spending as much as $14 million on a lawsuit demanding that Congress turn over control of the lands to Utah a suit that Weinholtz said is a futile waste of taxpayer money.
Herbert said he has never proposed selling the lands, but he believes that the state can manage the territory better than distant federal bureaucrats. Indeed, the governor has not called for selling the lands, but he has said the state could expedite leasing of oil and gas drilling and mining on the lands to increase production and generate more revenue for the state.
The two differed on other significant policy topics as well: Herbert said he wants to see more scientific proof that medical marijuana is beneficial before the state legalizes its use, while Weinholtz whose wife, Donna, has used medical marijuana said he supports its legalization.
Herbert said the market should dictate wages, and he pointed to Utah's growth in personal income in recent years as proof that his approach is working. Weinholtz said he would support raising the minimum wage because working families are struggling and Herbert is deaf to the plight, "because he spends so much time with his fat-cat corporate donors."
And Herbert gave his fullest endorsement of Republican nominee Donald Trump, but again based his support on his opposition to Democrat Hillary Clinton. The governor said that Clinton would add more than a trillion dollars to the debt and appoint liberal Supreme Court justices; he also said Clinton is dishonest.
"Most Democrats, the majority [in Utah] don't believe she's trustworthy," Herbert said. "It's one thing to have outlandish behavior. It's another thing to be dishonest, bordering on criminal activity."
Likewise, Weinholtz voiced support for Clinton without saying her name, instead pointing out how "the Democratic nominee" is better than Trump.
"It is clear the Democratic nominee is far more qualified than Donald Trump. The Democratic nominee has not called for a ban of an entire religion, which should be very concerning" to Utah's predominant Mormon faith, who had been persecuted in their past, Weinholtz said. "The Democratic candidate has not called women pigs and other names. The Democratic candidate has not called Mexicans rapists and murders. Donald Trump is eminently unqualified to lead this country."
Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University, said the debate allowed the candidates to draw clear distinctions between their views
"I thought Weinholtz did a particularly good job of coming out swinging. He was more aggressive than in the first debate … and had some clear areas where he was interested in attacking Gov. Herbert," Cann said. "Gov. Herbert, I thought, did an exceptional job of staying on message, focusing on areas where he has been very, very successful as governor in the last seven years and did a good job defending himself against the attacks that came."
"I think both of them probably found votes tonight that they probably didn't have before," Cann said.
It was the second meeting between the two candidates and likely the final debate before the election. At an earlier meeting before the Utah League of Cities and Towns, the two delved into municipal issues and federal jurisdiction over public land, although Weinholtz failed to damage Herbert.
Herbert is running in his third election since inheriting the office in 2009, when Gov. Jon Huntsman accepted an appointment as ambassador to China. Each time, Herbert trounced his Democratic opponent. He is in a solid position again, having an approval rating that ranks near the top of the nation's sitting governors.
Weinholtz is trailing Herbert badly in the polling that has been conducted throughout the race. Herbert has raised more than $3 million to fuel his campaign. Weinholtz has tapped his own bank account, loaning his campaign $2.5 million.