Huntsman touts record as job creator in Utah

Politics • His record as governor was one of steep job growth — until the recession hit
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Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman touted his record on job creation during a tour Tuesday of a medical testing services company that credits its growth to the ex-governor's policies.

John Bolinder, chief financial officer of Nelson Laboratories, said his company has managed to continue to grow throughout the recession and now employs 398 workers.

"We feel these policies have been able to help us grow in this market and this state," Bolinder said, noting that the company has been courted by states like Florida and California. "We do have other options."

Huntsman, who formally launched his campaign for the White House last week, shook hands and chatted briefly with employees at Nelson Laboratories' 11,000-square-foot Taylorsville campus.

"One of the reasons we're excited about this campaign in 2012 is I think we bring something to the table that speaks to what this state has done, specifically in the area of job creation and economic vitality," Huntsman told reporters.

During his tenure as governor, the state saw a dramatic boom-and-bust cycle mirroring that of the nation. Between the time Huntsman took office in January 2005 and the economic peak in January 2007, there were about 127,000 jobs created in the state and unemployment dipped as low as 2.3 percent — the lowest in state history.

But as the economy collapsed, roughly half those jobs disappeared and the unemployment rate tripled by the time Huntsman left office to take the job as U.S. ambassador to China in August 2009.

Now, the former governor said, it will take tax reform like he advocated in his first term as governor — when he cut the income tax rate from roughly 7 percent to 5 percent — and regulatory reform to grow the national economy again.

"We're preparing to pass down a country that is less good, less productive, less compassionate, less competitive, less hopeful than the country my generation got, and for every American, that ought to be an outrage," he said.

President Barack Obama, speaking in Iowa on Tuesday, said the steps he has taken as president have helped create 2 million private-sector jobs in the past 15 months and touted new policies aimed at training more workers and helping teach community-college students the skills that manufacturing companies need. Still, the unemployment rate as of June 3 was 9.1 percent.

"I know these are difficult times. … Sometimes it's tempting to turn cynical and to be doubtful about the future and to start thinking maybe our best days are behind us," Obama said. "I promise you, if we continue to adapt and we continue to innovate, and we work together to compete around the world, America will come back stronger than before. We will lead the way forward."

As Utah governor, one of Huntsman's first initiatives was to overhaul the Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED), bolstering the incentives the office offered to businesses to lure them to the state. Nelson Laboratories was one of those. In 2008, GOED offered a $2 million incentive to Nelson to expand its facility and purchase new equipment. The expansion was projected to create 393 jobs over 10 years. The incentive is post-performance, meaning Nelson won't receive the incentives unless it creates the jobs.

But some of the incentives didn't pan out. In 2005, GOED offered a major incentive to Kraftmaid, a cabinet maker, to build a factory in West Jordan. A few years later, Kraftmaid closed up shop and laid off hundreds of workers. And some Utah lawmakers think Huntsman's incentive-heavy approach skewed the market.

"I think through the Huntsman years there was a strong desire to have government picking winners and losers in industries and favoring certain industries and certain businesses at the expense of others," said Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland. "When you have businesses depending on government for dollars, it doesn't create a strong economy. It creates a weak economy."

Earlier in the day, the former governor participated in a fundraiser at the Alta Club in downtown Salt Lake City where the going rate was $1,000 per person or $2,500 for a VIP reception. His national finance co-chairman and Zions Bank President Scott Anderson said the fundraiser eclipsed its target, although the campaign would not say what that target was or how much was ultimately raised.

The former governor also spoke to a gathering of real-estate professionals Tuesday morning.

Huntsman was in Silicon Valley on Monday and left Utah on Tuesday evening, bound for Dallas. He will head to Chicago and Michigan for fundraisers Wednesday.

Before departing, there were some tearful embraces of the Huntsmans' son, Will, who will be heading to a Naval Academy preparatory school in Rhode Island in three weeks, meaning it may be the last time his parents see him before he reports.