SALT LAKE CITY -- Republican Governor Gary Herbert and his Democratic challenger, Mike Weinholtz, engaged in a vigorous discussion on public lands and federal overreach in their first debate.
Appearing before the Utah League of Cities & Towns' annual convention on Friday, the two discussed a wide range of topics including population growth, tax policy and local government powers. The two agreed on many topics, including the idea of imposing a local Internet sales tax.
But the sharpest contrasts came over questions about public lands. Weinholtz accused Herbert of wanting to sell off public lands to be exploited.
"I've never suggested selling off the public lands," the governor responded. "That's not true. I've said we're a public lands state, we'll always be a public lands state. The question is, who's going to manage them?"
Weinholtz cited the Utah State Legislature's decision to fund a $14 million lawsuit against the federal government for control of public lands in the state that the governor signed off on.
"We committed to spending $14 million of taxpayer money on a lawsuit that is absolutely unwinnable," he said. "It's not only morally bankrupt, but it's fiscally irresponsible and it's not something I would do as governor."
On the issue of federal government overreach, Governor Herbert pushed local control.
Weinholtz said Utah can't complain about federal overreach if it implements controls on local governments, too.
"Utah can and will complain every chance we get about federal overreach," Herbert said to applause from the room.
After the debate, Governor Herbert would not commit to a lawsuit against the federal government. He said it would be a decision for the next governor, which he acknowledged may be him.
Weinholtz said if elected he would try to persuade the Utah State Legislature to drop the lawsuit. If they refused, he'd push a ballot initiative.
"The citizens of Utah aren't in favor of this," he said. "It's the single party, far right who are interested in selling off our public lands."
Friday's debate was the first of only two the candidates have agreed to. Governor Herbert initially did not agree to appear before the Utah League of Cities & Towns because he was in Canada on a trade mission. His travel plans changed, his campaign said, and organizers of the event put it together at the last minute.
Herbert and Weinholtz have one more debate scheduled on Sept. 26. The debate at Utah State University will be broadcast on FOX 13.