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As governor, Democratic candidate Peter Cooke said Thursday he would push Utah from last in the nation in per pupil spending to 30th in his first term — a bold promise, but one scant on details — and Gov. Gary Herbert said it would mean raising taxes.

Cooke said it wouldn't require a tax hike. He said he could find the money needed — about $2 billion — by making education a priority and squeezing more efficiency out of government.

"How I'm going to do that is … by looking at every piece of budget there possibly is and find ways to really cut back in other expenditures. We have to somehow find ways to meet that challenge," Cooke said after his final debate with Herbert. "If you want a detailed plan, I'll get that to you right after I become governor."

"I think you see with my opponent he wants to have some kind of plan to have a plan and some kind of government program to solve the problems," Herbert said of Cooke.

Herbert argued that the best way to pay for the needs of Utah's growing student population is by keeping taxes low and growing the economy and to get more state control over federal lands in the state and revenues from those lands.

Herbert said Utah has unique challenges — namely large families with a high number of children supported by each taxpayer — but argued that the public and higher education budgets have grown on his watch and constitutes about 43 percent of the overall state budget.

"In that unique situation we're doing a pretty good job of getting to the right outcomes," Herbert said.

During Herbert's tenure, the public education budget has grown from $3.1 billion to $3.2 billion, but per-pupil spending has fallen by nearly $300 per student, according to legislative and census reports. The percentage of the state budget going to education has dropped from 31 percent to 29 percent, with social services crowding out some education spending, according to legislative reports.

"Business and economic development in this state will grow without government, but it will not grow without education," Cooke said. "We have to pay that price, and it's going to be a hard price to pay."

Cooke, who is seen as an underdog in his challenge to the governor, also criticized Herbert's management of state government, pointing to scandals in the Department of Transportation and Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and a data breach at the Department of Health that compromised Social Security numbers of up to 280,000 Medicaid applicants and other information on 500,000 others.

UDOT paid $13 million to avoid litigation after a flawed bid process for the contract to rebuild Interstate 15 through Utah County, and expenses related to the data breach will be at least $12 million.

Herbert compared it to a state employee who crashes a government truck.

"That's part of life, and there's a cost of doing business. We have to own up to the mistakes that are made and own them and correct them," he said.

Herbert staked his case for re-election to an economy that is recovering well ahead of the national average, an unemployment rate that has fallen from 7 percent to 5.8 percent and shrinking food-stamp rolls.

"We are leading the nation out of this economic downturn," Herbert said.

Other issues the two discussed:

• Both candidates oppose gay marriage. Cooke said he would support a statewide non-discrimination ordinance, prohibiting housing and employment discrimination against gays and lesbians. Herbert said he supports people being treated fairly but wants local governments to pass ordinances rather than have a state law. Fifteen municipalities and two school districts have passed such ordinances.

• Cooke said Herbert's administration failed to detect when 17 drums of waste was delivered to EnergySolutions that was more radioactive than the site is allowed to take. He said as governor, he would make sure Utah is not the nation's dumping ground. Herbert said the U.S. Department of Energy mislabeled the drums and state regulators caught the mistake. The waste remains in place. Herbert said EnergySolutions is licensed to operate, and he respects the rule of law.

Twitter: @RobertGehrke —

Debate broadcasts

P The debate will be broadcast 6 p.m. Thursday on KUER radio and will be on KUED TV at 9 p.m.

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