SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert sounded an optimistic note about the state’s economy during the last gubernatorial debate Thursday, while Democratic challenger Peter Cooke repeatedly criticized the current administration on education funding.
Herbert told reporters after the debate that “Happy Days” are not here yet, “but we’re on the right road going to see Fonzie.”
That was the tone of the debate held at the University of Utah, with an almost cheerful Herbert emphasizing that the things are beginning to look up in the state, and that’s voters should keep him in charge.
Cooke, meanwhile, hammered Herbert on everything from education, his opposition to President Barack Obama’s health care law, and Utah’s threat to take over federal lands that make up two-thirds of the state. Herbert signed legislation that gives the federal government until 2014 to relinquish control of national forests, public range lands, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and two national recreation areas.
Herbert has called for more energy development on federal lands, and argues that there are ways to do it responsibly.
But Cooke said Utah’s landscape is a big part of the state’s identity.
“We lose our environment, we lose a big part of who we are in this state,” he said.
The debate was the last of three between the candidates.
Cooke, a retired Army general, took the opportunity to cast doubt on Herbert’s view that Utah’s economy is faring well, and said the state can’t completely recover until the national economy does.
Throughout the debate, he turned the focus to education funding.
“If we don’t take care of education, we as a state cannot move forward,” Cooke said.
However, Cooke has yet to provide specifics on how he would find additional funding for education. Herbert said nearly half of the state budget already goes to education, and, at one point, questioned whether Cooke wanted to raise taxes.
Cooke said no, and that he’s looking at all available options in the budget to find funding.
Cooke’s path to office is a tough one. He must overcome a large electoral advantage by Republicans, who make up 47 percent of active registered voters in the state. Democrats are 9 percent, and independents are 42 percent of the state’s active registered voters.
The debate had some light moments.
“It doesn’t surprise me, general, that you find problems,” Herbert said. “I mean, it’s the political season. Your job is to find problems out there. I’m sure if I gave you a plate of doughnuts, rather than see the doughnut, you’d see the hole.”
Cooke responded: “I think governor if you gave me a doughnut I’d probably eat it.”