Lawmakers trying to end Huntsmanís key policies

Published: Sunday, March 6 2011 9:57 p.m. MST

Jon Huntsman

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SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers are attempting this session to reverse key pieces of former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s legacy.

GOP bills are advancing to undo Huntsman's efforts establishing a four-day workweek for state employees and removing much of the sales tax on food.

No one is calling it an attack on the former Republican governor hailed by many outside his party for his progressive stands on issues, including favoring civil unions and addressing climate change.

"That hasn't even entered our minds," said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden.

However, Huntsman, who stepped down as governor in 2009 after being appointed U.S. ambassador to China, is under increased scrutiny nationally because he is said to be considering a run for the White House.

He's already seen his past popularity as governor fall short in recent Utah polls that pitted him against another potential presidential candidate with Utah ties, Mitt Romney, the leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

So it can't help Huntsman to have Republican lawmakers taking a second look at two of his most touted achievements and could undo them before the session ends Thursday.

The House has passed HB328, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, to require state agencies to reopen on Fridays, ending a Monday through Thursday schedule in place since mid-2008.

And the Senate has passed SB270, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, to restore the state sales tax on food that was reduced to 1.75 percent over the 2006 and 2007 legislative sessions.

"There were a number of things Gov. Huntsman pushed and the Legislature grudgingly went along with," University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said.

Huntsman's popularity with voters — who elected him twice and gave him high approval ratings throughout his time in office — no doubt kept lawmakers from picking too many fights with him, Burbank said.

Now that Huntsman's former lieutenant governor, Gov. Gary Herbert, has won election to the remainder of Huntsman's term, conservatives in the Legislature are dealing with someone more aligned with their views.

House Minority Assistant Whip Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said Huntsman was "clearly a standard-bearer, a reflection, of the more moderate wing" of the Republican Party.

But King said abandoning Huntsman's big initiatives is part of an effort to pull the GOP agenda more to the right, not a personal attack.

"I don't think they have Jon Huntsman in their gun sights," he said. "These speak of a Republican Party that's more conservative."

Linda Hilton, who's been fighting against restoring the sales tax on food as director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, said the Legislature has become more conservative since Huntsman's departure.

"When you look at the progressive moves Huntsman made, it's sort of natural to see this reversal and moving back to old traditions," Hilton said.

Noel said Huntsman initially ran on a more conservative agenda, including promising to counter environmentalists preventing energy development.

"When he came up here, he completely turned tail on me," Noel said. "He wasn't up here two weeks before he started pushing an environmental agenda."

But Noel said he wasn't going after Huntsman's legacy by attempting to repeal the four-day workweek. He said he targeted it for not being business-friendly.

Still, Noel said he was surprised Huntsman backed the change since he put so much emphasis on economic development during his time as governor.

Noel, who keeps a years-old personal message from Huntsman on his cell phone, said they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

"As a person, I really liked him," Noel said of Huntsman. "I really think he was a pure spirit-type guy. In terms of his policies, I don't know."

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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