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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Democratic candidate for governor said Tuesday that state officials are failing to ensure the military base that is the state's largest employer survives base closures, but he offered no concrete examples of how he would do so if elected.
Retired Army Reserves Maj. Gen. Peter Cooke has made the future of Hill Air Force Base a centerpiece of his campaign, criticizing Republican incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert as "asleep" when the Pentagon downgraded the mission at the base and saying at a news conference Tuesday that more must be done to ensure the base remains relevant to the military into the future.
A federal commission that examines military bases for closure is set to issue new recommendations in 2015. More immediately, automatic, across-the-board budget cuts of 9 percent to most Pentagon programs are possible after the first of the year because Congress failed to reach a budget deal last year.
The military is struggling to deal with an onslaught of budget cuts, Cooke said, and that onslaught is likely coming to Utah.
Hill Air Force Base is Utah's largest employer with some 25,000 employees north of Salt Lake City and an economic impact of about $3 billion.
Those numbers are similar to Tinker Air Force Base, which is Oklahoma's largest employer and recently assumed an increased command mission. Cooke pointed to Oklahoma as an example for taking steps to keep that base intact.
Joining him at the news conference: Oklahoma County Commissioner Ray Vaughn Jr., who said the message state and local officials there have learned is to be proactive.
In 2005, the county lost 2,200 jobs when a General Motors plant closed after operating for 27 years. That plant shares a border with Tinker, which employs more than 26,000 people and has a payroll of $3.8 billion.
The local Chamber of Commerce spent two years trying to find a buyer for the plant, Vaughn said, before chamber leaders finally approached the Air Force about leasing it.
With no firm commitment from the military, voters there still approved a $55 million bond in 2008 to buy the closed plant to lease to the base. The bond increased taxes by 68 cents for the owner of a $100,000 home.
"The citizens have a long history of supporting this base," Vaughn said. "We were interested in not only replacing jobs that were lost with the GM plant, but in creating new opportunities."
Already, 150 jobs at the Utah base have been moved to the Oklahoma base. Whether more Utah jobs will be lost remains to be seen.
Cooke said that, if elected, he would immediately visit the Pentagon to better understand Air Force plans to realign its operations and would treat the military as he would any other business he hoped to retain. He offered no specific examples of how to make the Utah base more attractive and essential to the military going forward, but said state officials should be looking at areas to expand operations there. They include the drone program and looking to bases that are struggling to poach some operations.
A spokesman for Herbert's campaign said the governor recognizes the vital importance of Hill to the national defense and to Utah's economy, but said protecting it is a team effort.
"Governor Herbert will continue to be a champion for Hill Air Force Base, and he is confident it will thrive based on its strategic military value and because of the hard working men and women on base — not because of politics," spokesman Marty Carpenter said.
Utah hasn't had a Democrat in the governor's office since 1985. Herbert is running for his first four-year term. He ascended from lieutenant governor in 2009 when then-Gov. Jon Huntsman resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China.