Governor candidates Herbert, Cooke spar over economy, health care, immigration at Chamber forum

Published: Thursday, Oct. 4 2012 5:06 p.m. MDT

Utah Governor Gary Herbert speaks during a debate against Peter Cooke on Friday, September 14, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The second matchup between GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and his Democratic challenger, Peter Cooke, again highlighted their disagreements over Utah's economy.

Herbert told the business leaders gathered Thursday for the Salt Lake Chamber candidate forum that there's been "great success in moving the state forward" on his priorities, including the economy and education, since he took office more than three years ago.

But Cooke, a retired general, said Utah leaders have focused too much on developing infrastructure and cutting taxes rather than improving the state's education system to make it more attractive to businesses looking to relocate.

Neither candidate called for raising taxes to boost spending on schools. Herbert said strengthening the economy will make more money available, while Cooke said the state's priorities need to be re-examined.

The pair also disagreed on whether the state should expand Medicaid coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act, with Cooke in favor and Herbert opposed.

"It's a smart business decision," Cooke said, noting the federal government will pay all of the additional costs initially.

The governor, who backs the repeal and "reset" of President Barack Obama's health care plan, said the "idea of free money from Washington, D.C., is a myth."

The candidates did agree the state should have more control over spending Medicaid funds. Herbert suggested the state be able to turn to volunteer doctors to expand the safety net.

The nearly two-year-old Utah Compact also was discussed. The chamber was among the community, business, political and faith leaders that signed the document calling for a more humane approach to immigration reform.

Cooke said he signed the compact himself and would veto any legislation inconsistent with its call for federal solutions to immigration and policies that did not separate families.

Herbert said he did not sign the compact because he had already come up with his own guiding principles for dealing with immigration. He said he would not presuppose what legislation he might veto.

Utah lawmakers ended up passing a package of immigration laws in 2011 that both increased enforcement and created a guest worker program.  The governor said unlike Arizona and other states that have tried to get tough on immigration, Utah has not suffered boycotts or lost migrant workers.

Herbert took a dig at Cooke for having signed the compact only a few days ago, after the chamber circulated a list of questions for the forum.

The governor said he didn't "want to be a 'Johnny come lately,'" and said that signing the compact now is "patronizing."

Cooke said after the debate he hadn't realized anyone could sign the compact online, at www.theutahcompact.com.

"I don't think it's patronizing," said. "(The governor) can sign it, too. He hasn't."

Herbert told reporters his views on immigration were "probably a little stronger" than the language of the compact because he believes "we need to get away from rewarding illegal behavior."

He said, too, that signing the compact might have made it more difficult to work with the Legislature on immigration.

The gubernatorial candidates will meet for a final debate on Oct. 11 at KUED Channel 7. The debate will be taped in the morning and broadcast at 9 p.m. that night by public television and radio stations throughout the state.

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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