Huntsman Ties His Success as Governor to Utah’s Economy

By: - January 4, 2005 12:00 am

Taking the oath as the state’s sixteenth chief executive, Huntsman repeated his campaign slogan that he will bring a “new day” to state government. The self-described establishment outsider promises to use his election victory in bold ways to get things done, not hoard goodwill for some future political venture as he suggests some predecessors have done.

“I’m going to be one who will draw down political capital and use it in the pursuit of good public policy,” he said in a recent interview. He says he has “zero” aspirations to use the governor’s job as a steppingstone to higher political office.

Even before serving his first day in the governor’s office, the 44-year-old former U.S. ambassador to Singapore has vowed to serve no more than two terms. That is a break from the recent past, with Gov. Mike Leavitt winning three consecutive terms before stepping down his final year to accept President George W. Bush’s nomination as Environmental Protection Agency administrator. (Leavitt now has been tapped as the president’s choice to be the next secretary of U.S. Health and Human Services.)

Huntsman said he already has held discussions with an unnamed lawmaker to introduce legislation to limit executive branch elected officials to two terms.

Other parts of his campaign government reform package already may have been watered down by the political reality of the approaching legislative session, which begins Jan. 17.

Huntsman now backs a measure imposing a two-year “cooling off” period to keep executive branch officials from leaving office to take on lobbying contracts. Originally, he proposed including legislators in the restriction.

While government reform was one of the first initiatives of his campaign, it quickly was pushed to second-tier status by his overriding theme of stimulating economic development.

A former executive of a family chemical company founded by his father, Jon Huntsman Sr., the governor has promised to drive the creation of tens of thousands of new, high-paying jobs and attract millions more tourists. He advocates significant new investment in transportation, travel and tourism.

“The one thing we ask to be judged on is how the economy has improved,” said Jason Chaffetz, Huntsman’s campaign manager and now chief of staff.

Huntsman has suggested eliminating the corporate franchise tax on small businesses (those grossing less than $5 million) during their first five years of operation, phasing out the 5.75 percent statewide sales tax on food and slowing government growth by adopting a “flexible freeze” on state hiring.

One of his new administration’s first big tests may be over the issue of tax credits for families sending children to private schools.

Early in the campaign, Huntsman signaled his support for a broad across-the-board tuition-tax credit bill. But in later stages of the campaign, when the candidate was trying to appeal to a broader, less conservative electorate, Huntsman signaled support for a much more restrictive plan: a small-scale experiment granting tax breaks for families educating disabled children in private schools.

Lobbying groups and legislators pushing tuition tax credits likely won’t be satisfied with such a limited pilot program.

“We’re hoping to see more than that,” said Elisa Clements Peterson of the Parent for Choice in Education political action committee.

Other campaign positions put Huntsman at odds with the Republican White House. During the campaign, Huntsman repeatedly criticized Bush’s No Child Left Behind education reform plan, saying that it is too rigid in its one-size-fits-all approach.

Huntsman pledged to use his diplomatic and trade representative skills to try to negotiate more flexibility. But he also said that if push came to shove, he would forfeit the more than $100 million in federal aid attached to NCLB rather than succumb to its worst elements.

Huntsman also suggested in several debates that the Bush administration should be more open to legalizing the reimportation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, although he never took a line-in-the-sand stand.

Navigating such sharp political reefs will take a canny and steady pilot in the governor’s office, skills Huntsman exhibited during the year-long campaign.

He was an early favorite in the race because of the high positive name identification resulting from his father’s multi-billion-dollar chemical holdings and philanthropic pursuits, including the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.

Out of a herd of nine GOP hopefuls, Huntsman’s most serious threat came from incumbent Gov. Olene Walker, who had ascended to the office from lieutenant governor after Leavitt’s early departure. Public opinion polls showed Walker leading all challengers in popularity, but that had little impact on conservative party insiders, who knocked her out of the running in the state party convention last May.

Huntsman wisely listed to the right during that early leg of the race, then drifted back to the center as he easily defeated former House Speaker Nolan Karras in the primary and Democrat Scott Matheson Jr., son of Utah’s last Democratic governor, in the general election.

Dan Harrie is government editor for The Salt Lake Tribune.

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