OGDEN — Preparing for future expected growth, says Jon Huntsman, would be his priority as governor.

If the state can’t keep up with infrastructure needs, rejigger the economy to keep creating job opportunities, he warns, the upshot could be dire.

“It’s an inflection point for the the state, because the decisions that will be made by the next governor and team coming into 2020 will impact and influence the state for 25 years,” he said Tuesday at a stop at Weber State University. “When you look around the bend, we see another million people coming over the next decade-plus. I don’t know how we’re going to accommodate them while keeping our quality of life. That’s a big question mark. We’ve got to get busy thinking about it.”

Addressing mental health to counter suicide, particularly among teens and young adults, would also be a priority. “This state has had a collective failure when it comes to mental health. We don’t know how to talk about it,” he said.

Huntsman, governor of Utah from 2005-2009, announced plans on Nov. 14 to run for governor in 2020. He’s visited the campuses of Southern Utah University, Dixie State University and Utah State University as his campaign launches and now Weber State University. Other candidates to replace Gov. Gary Herbert, who’s not seeking reelection, include Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Provo businessman Jeff Burningham and Aimee Winder Newton, a member of the Salt Lake County Council.

Huntsman kicked off his address to about 100 students, faculty and others, explaining his decision to cut his second term as governor short to serve as U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama. Huntsman, a Republican, was in the first year of his second term as governor in 2009 when he stepped down to take the China posting under the Democratic president.

When the president asks you to do something “you salute and try to do the best for your country,” said Huntsman, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump before stepping down earlier this year. Still, he said, it was “most difficult decision” of his political career.

Later asked by a member of the audience if he’d step down as governor again if elected and subsequently asked to serve in a diplomatic posting, he said no. He’s proud of his diplomatic service and glad he did it, he said, “but no, we are here.”

‘ALL HANDS ON DECK DEAL’

In preparing the state for expected growth in coming years, Huntsman said things like making sure Utah’s infrastructure is ready and maintaining air quality and quality schools are keys. If the quality of life here slips, he said, it can translate into lost economic opportunities.

“We have to fight to bring the kinds of jobs and to keep the kinds of jobs here that will allow families to stay together and for communities to prosper,” he said.

To that end, he called for rebooting the state’s economic development programs, a priority during his stint as governor in the 2000s. “In earlier days, it was just any jobs we’ll take. Well, we’re to the point where we don’t have to say that anymore. We can say we want higher, value-added, higher-paying jobs of the manufacturing level. We can shoot for a different set of industries,” he said.

In addressing mental health, he said the state has taken an approach up till now of earmarking funds only to address the symptoms that lead to suicide. He called for more comprehensive efforts to understand the underlying issues that create mental health problems in the first place.

“This is an all hands on deck deal,” he said, requiring participation by religious organizations, businesses, community leaders and foundations.

Asked about gun violence at schools, he said mental health is a factor in the matter and, without getting specific, that background checks figure in addressing the issue. “Government can have some say over background checks, and they should be thorough and rigorous,” he said.

He expressed support for medical use of cannabis and use of public referendums to institute change. Some medical marijuana advocates have criticized the decision of Utah lawmakers to tweak Proposition 2, the measure calling for legalization of medical cannabis, after its passage last year. Huntsman said public expressions from such referendums “really ought to be respected.”

State lawmakers are in the midst of talks about overhauling the state’s system of taxation, with increased sales taxes on food, a reduction in the state income tax and more. Some say the issue ought to be addressed in a special session before year’s end. Huntsman, though, said such a big decision should be debated during the regular session starting next January. He also expressed opposition to raising the tax on food, echoing advocates for the poor and low-income Utahns.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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