Utah governor candidates debate masks, infrastructure before November election

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Candidates Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, and Democrat Chris Peterson, rivals to become Utah’s next governor, bump elbows after facing each other in a prime-time debate in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Cox went head to head with Democratic law professor Peterson in Utah’s gubernatorial debate Tuesday. The two candidates are competing to succeed Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who isn’t running again after more than a decade in office. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Utah gubernatorial candidates Spencer Cox, a Republican and current lieutenant governor, and Chris Peterson, a Democratic professor of business law at University of Utah, went head to head in a debate on Tuesday evening about their political stances as potential governors. 

COVID-19 precautions were a big topic for the evening. Peterson has called for a mask mandate since July and said he would still make it a matter of law with reasonable exceptions.

“There are a lot of things we do in a civilized society to take care of one another. We have mandates about stopping at traffic lights, we aren’t allowed to drive 200 miles-per-hour down the freeway,” Peterson said. “If you show up to work you probably have to wear your pants.” 

Cox said he supports what Governor Herbert has chosen to do, which is leaving the decision of a mask mandate to each community. He said he has seen mask wearing increase significantly through surveys that measure people’s compliance. 

“Everyone should wear a mask. If you have to have a law to mandate you to wear a mask, first of all, you’re probably not going to do it anyway and it doesn’t make that much of a difference,” Cox said. 

Both Cox and Peterson agreed that wearing a mask is extremely important for people’s safety, health and lives. They specifically addressed the issue on college campuses when UVU student Preston Strickland asked what the government should do to encourage college students to wear masks.  

“My message to you young people is please, please take this seriously. You care about others, it may not hurt you, but it could kill someone else,” Cox said. 

Peterson emphasized how important wearing a mask is and said according to the CDC, Utah is the 4th worst state in terms of per capita infection, therefore residents need to do more to minimize the spread of coronavirus. 

Debate moderator Doug Wright shifted the conversation by asking candidates how they plan on sustaining the quality of life in Utah with the population projected to double by the year 2050. 

Cox said there’s a reason Utah is the fastest growing state, and with his simple formula Utah will continue to progress and keep the quality of life it has. 

“When infrastructure proceeds growth, the quality of life stays high. When growth proceeds infrastructure the quality of life declines,” Cox said.

He mentioned the state is currently investing in infrastructure, including a newly opened airport terminal and improving freeway interchanges. However, he said there is more work to do. For example, mass transit needs to increase and be easier for people to use.

Peterson mentioned other aspects of keeping the quality of life up to par such as air quality, increasing school system funding and creating more economic development.

“We need to focus on making sure we are spreading out the economical development, not just along the Wasatch Front, but all across the state to more rural areas,” Peterson said.

He said he wants to invest in rural broadband to try to create more teleworking and develop more jobs out in other communities across the state to use our land to the best of our advantage.

Cox and Peterson disagreed on Utah’s school system and how to improve the education system. 

Peterson said Utah is dead last in per people funding for our public school system, and he wants to use available resources to improve it. 

“One in four 4th-graders in Utah can’t read at a basic level. We need to make sure we are addressing the highest teen suicide rate in America. To do that it is going to take some resources,” Peterson said.

Cox said there are several reasons Utah appears to be last in per capita spending, which doesn’t make that statement as valid.

“We have a lot more kids per capita than anywhere else in the country and about 70% of our state is owned by the federal government and the federal government does not pay taxes on that.” 

However, Cox did agree that it is essential for kids who live in rural Utah and west of the Salt Lake Valley to have the same opportunity in education as kids who live in Park City.

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