Utah Senate, House hopefuls debate gun rights, abortion, food tax
WASHINGTON TERRACE — Seven of the nine hopefuls for four Utah legislative seats serving Weber County addressed abortion, gun rights, the state food tax and more in the last of three candidate forums this week.
The tone at Thursday’s gathering was congenial, but there were some marked differences among the candidates. On hand were District 10 Utah House hopefuls Rosemary Lesser, the Democratic incumbent, and GOP challenger Jill Koford and the two candidates for the District 5 Utah Senate seat — GOP incumbent Ann Millner and Democratic challenger Michael Blodgett.
Democratic District 8 Utah House hopeful Monica Hall was there as well as two of the three contenders for the District 9 Utah House seat, Libertarian Jacob Johnson and Democrat Neil Hansen. Two candidates did not attend — Republicans Jason Kyle, the other District 8 Utah House hopeful, and Cal Musselman, who currently holds the District 9 Utah House seat but was sidelined by knee surgery earlier this week.
The forum took place at the Pleasant Valley Branch library in Washington Terrace. It and the other gatherings this week were hosted by the Weber County League of Women Voters and the Ogden Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Abortion has emerged as a hot topic since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June that struck down Roe v. Wade, leaving it to individual states to determine policy on the matter.
A trigger law subsequently went into effect in Utah prohibiting abortions except in certain circumstances, including cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the pregnant woman. Then, a Utah judge granted a request for an injunction putting implementation of the trigger law on hold as a suit challenging the law winds through court.
All the hopefuls Thursday faced a query on the matter, and Blodgett and Hall sounded pro-choice points of view, saying it should be up to women to decide in consultation with their health care providers. Personally, Hansen said he’s pro-life, but, like Blodgett and Hall, that the choice in the matter should be up to individual women.
The right to choose “is a fundamental right of women,” Hansen said, in consulation with their families, clergy and health care providers.
Millner and Koford said they are pro-life, that abortions should only be allowed in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in danger.
Johnson said he’d favor some sort of “compromise” on the issue, but that he’d need to get more input from the public before coming up with a firm position. However, he favored the June Supreme Court ruling giving individual states power to decide on the matter.
Lesser expressed concern with Utah’s trigger law, saying she doesn’t think it’s clear enough in spelling out the circumstances when abortions are permitted, potentially putting doctors in legal peril if they perform the procedure. She also lamented that the trigger law didn’t get input from the public and medical community before its implementation.
UTAH’S FOOD TAX
The repeal of the state’s 1.75% food tax emerged as an issue in the 2022 session, pushed by Lesser, and the candidates sounded off on the topic.
Lesser, still backing elimination of the tax, noted that the topic has long been debated in Utah. Precipitating her appointment to the District 10 seat in early 2021, she had pushed against a controversial increase in the state food tax in 2019, ultimately repealed.
Hansen, Hall and Blodgett also expressed support for axing the tax. Hansen called the tax regressive, more detrimental to low-income people, while Hall said food is “the last thing that needs to be taxed.”
Koford is willing to consider elimination of the tax, but, alluding to state revenue surpluses, said she’d like to go further, scaling back the state’s income tax rate. “I think we need real, meaningful tax cuts,” she said.
Johnson voiced support for more radical change, giving the public the right to decide which taxes they’re willing to pay. If you don’t want to pay a tax, “why should you be forced to?”
Millner expressed skepticism, noting that the state portion of the food tax was cut in half “a number of years ago.” If the food tax is to be eliminated, she said, state officials would have to rearrange the tax structure to make sure the services that rely on food sales tax revenue get the money they need.
Blodgett lamented the number of mass shootings, noting the latest to cause headlines in Thailand. “I’m sick and tired of it,” he said.
In certain circumstances, he expressed support for waiting periods and vetting of gun buyers.
Millner believes the way to address problems with guns and mass shootings is to get at what she says is the underlying issue.
“I do believe the problem we have is a mental health problem,” she said. “We have got to find better channels, better ways of helping people deal with the underlying issues.”
Koford echoed the importance of education on gun safety. “I don’t know that restricting gun ownership will solve the issues that we’re facing. I think we have bigger issues,” she said.
Like Millner, she also said a focus should be placed on dealing with the mental health issues that seem to underlie misuse of guns, whether in suicides or violence.
Hall said in knocking on doors while campaigning, many expressed concern about gun violence and she touted further investigation into the issue. “I think we care enough to come to the table,” she said.
Hansen, a gun owner, stressed the importance of education on gun safety but hinted at the need for more controls. “There’s no reason to have an assault rifle to go hunting. That’s just something that needs to be taken off the table,” he said.
Johnson, too, stressed education, but expressed hesitancy at more regulations.
“I don’t believe that anyone should be forced to do much of anything,” he said, also saying legislation would “hurt” those who follow laws. “Criminals don’t follow laws.”
Lesser called for background checks on anyone who buys a gun — and not just from authorized dealers — and said restricting guns would have the effect of reducing suicides. She noted former President Donald Trump approved a bill prohibiting bump stocks.
GROWTH, WATER, LGBTQ COMMUNITY
Koford thinks the biggest issue that needs attention is inflation while top for Lesser is working for “responsible growth and smart growth” in Utah as the population booms.
Water conservation is the top issue for Hansen, he said, because if Utahns do nothing “we’re not going to have enough water to maintain the population that we have.”
Blodgett made a specific shout out of support to the LGBTQ community and other marginalized communities, like the homeless. “Everybody has equal rights. I love all human beings,” he said.
Millner said she has unfinished business as a lawmaker, noting, in particular, efforts to bolster education and reading levels of the youngest kids.
Hall noted the absence of Kyle, the GOP contender in the District 8 Utah House race. “I just want to say this in charity. I care. I showed up tonight because I want to be able to answer your questions, and that’s how I’ll represent you. I’ll show up,” she said.
Johnson stressed his Libertarian values, particularly avoiding laws that unduly hamstring the public. “We advocate for personal freedom, personal liberty,” he said, as long as an individual’s actions don’t infringe on others’ rights.
The Weber County League of Women Voters held a forum on Tuesday featuring candidates for the Weber and Ogden school boards and another on Wednesday featuring the candidates for the Weber County Commission.
Ballots go out Oct. 18 and the last day to vote is Nov. 8.