Editorial: Gov. Huntsman needs to get his priorities straight

By By Aaron Zundel

By Aaron Zundel

Back in early February, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. railroaded House Bill 38 through the Utah Legislature in a little less than a week. The bill, which passed both the Senate and the House, was designed to quickly scare up the $35 million required to keep Major League Soccer franchise Real Salt Lake here in Utah. Based on the team’s need for a permanent place to play, the $35 million is intended to help subsidize the franchise’s plans to build a $110-million stadium complex?$35 million that Salt Lake County had denied it just days prior to HB 38’s passing.

On Jan. 29, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon–citing low public approval and high financial risk–gave the ax to the planned county subsidy that would have used the county’s hotel tax revenue to help pay for the proposed stadium development. RSL started packing its bags; the morning after Corroon’s decision, RSL owner Dave Checketts went on a media blitz, telling anyone who would listen that he was getting ready to sell the team to St. Louis.

Enter Huntsman and HB 38, which raised the money, secured the stadium and kept RSL here in Utah. It also seems to have kept Huntsman off the couch at home.

According to a recent article in the Deseret Morning News, Utah first lady Mary Kay Huntsman is directly responsible for the governor’s quick action and political maneuvering to save the team. Reportedly upset with Corroon’s decision to cut financing, Mary Kay Huntsman let her husband know that she wanted the team to stay in Utah, and within days the governor was championing HB 38.

“Truth be told, we would not be standing here without Mary Kay (Huntsman’s) insistence that RSL stay here,” Checketts told the newspaper. The team even sent the first lady 35 roses.

Last May, Gov. Huntsman said that he would support Salt Lake County should they decide to reject the RSL deal.

“The stadium funding proposal is an issue that local governments must be comfortable with before they proceed,” he said. Yet now, at the insistence of his wife, Gov. Huntsman effectively bypassed Salt Lake County’s decision, supporting a bill that appropriated the same revenue for the same project.

Allowing the desires of family members to influence public policy is never appropriate, but — all couch jokes aside — Gov. Huntsman’s decision to ignore the will of Salt Lake County residents and requisition county money through the Legislature in order to pander to family is nothing more than poor, self-indulgent, irresponsible governing. His job is to enact the will of the people–not the will of his wife.

Personally, I’m a fan of the RSL deal, and back in January, I was pulling for it to go through. However, as happy as I am that the team is staying, I’m disturbed by the governor’s behavior. The touted benefits to the community from the RSL deal are far from a sure thing, and in the end it was clear that Salt Lake residents preferred to spend the tax revenue elsewhere. Indeed, polls by Dan Jones & Associates indicate that more than half of Salt Lake County’s residents opposed the stadium project. Several analysts from both local and national sources have expressed doubts about the projected amount of revenue RSL claims it will generate. When Corroon made his decision not to support the stadium project, he did what he thought was in the best interest of the county and the residents.

The RSL deal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the governor’s handling of it is. The next time his wife finds another pet project for him to interfere in, he’d do well to opt for “the couch” and listen to the people he’s responsible for representing. That is, after all, his job.

Besides, the couch in the Governor’s Mansion can’t be all that bad.