Andy Larsen: Gov. Cox spoke to young Utahns in his annual speech. Is Utah’s government addressing the issues that matter to youth?

Here’s a quick roundup of some issues that appear in polls of millennials and younger adults.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Charter school students listen as Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to a crowd from 40 charter schools, at the Capitol for Charter Day on the Hill, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

I thought Gov. Spencer Cox’s State of the State address last week was a good speech.

You can read the full transcript here, but in short, Cox’s main rhetorical device was to focus on Utah’s young people — smart to do, in the the youngest state in the nation. Cox called on Utah’s youth to have “faith in our capacity and commitment to solve today’s hard problems together,” and then went on to discuss some of his policy priorities for the 45-day legislative session to follow. It was a nice flourish to refer to each bill named in his speech by the children of the bill’s legislative sponsors, not the legislators themselves.

My next thought, then, was to see if I could figure out if Cox’s — and the state legislature’s — policy priorities actually matched the interests of Utah’s young people. Is there any data on what actually does matter to young people? And, most importantly, are Cox and Utah’s government addressing those concerns?

What matters to young people?

There was only one study or poll that I could find in the last decade that explicitly sought to understand the issues that matter to certain age demographics in Utah. That came in the Utah Foundation’s report “What’s on Utah’s Mind: Voter Issues and Concerns in 2020.”

Utah Foundation's polling on what matters to Utahns by generation. (https://www.utahfoundation.org/uploads/rr778.pdf)

That’s helpful, to be sure: Utah millennials listed health care as their No. 1 priority, followed by K-12 education and public health. Housing affordability and partisanship were considered more important by millennials than the other generations studied.

But the Utah Foundation’s study didn’t include the opinion of any Generation Z kids, generally considered those born after 1997 or so. And of course, it’s possible priorities have shifted since 2020, too. So to get a perspective on those issues, we may have to look at research done in America more generally.

The Alliance For Youth Action interviewed 2,332 people ages 17-39 in 2022 battleground states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It found that inflation and the economy were the top issues for young people in this last election in those states.

Alliance For Youth Action polling on young people in battleground states ahead of the 2022 elections. (http://allianceforyouthaction.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/24/2022/08/Young-Battleground-State-Voters-on-Elections-Issues-and-Voting-August-2022.pdf)

Beyond that, protecting abortion access, democracy reform, affordable health care and climate change were the top issues.

Harvard’s Youth Poll interviewed 2,123 American young adults ages 18-29 ahead of the 2022 elections, and found a pretty similar spread of top issues.

Harvard Public Opinion Project polling of young Americans 18-29. (https://iop.harvard.edu/fall-2022-harvard-youth-poll)

In this poll, inflation, abortion, protecting democracy, climate change and gun control were the top five issues.

Finally, the GenForward survey interviewed 2,555 Americans between the ages of 18-40, asking them, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” There were a lot of different answers.

GenForward's survey of American adults ages 18-40. (http://api.genforwardsurvey.com/download/367/?f=true)

However, the top answers were economic growth, gun control, women’s rights, income inequality and abortion.

Just for ease of reference, here’s a table combining the top five issues in all of those studies in one place.

What is Utah doing on these issues?

Obviously, we could write, have written, and will continue to write scores of articles on each of these topics. Some are being specifically addressed in this 2023 legislative session, but others are on the back burner. Here’s a quick roundup of the issues that appear in at least two of the top five lists above, though.

• With regards to inflation, Cox said in his speech that “almost all of the levers of inflation are outside our state’s control.”

Perhaps the biggest lever the state has is its tax policy: Economists generally agree that tax cuts put inflationary pressures on the market, as they increase demand in the marketplace for goods people care about. Cox proposed a $1 billion tax cut package, which includes a 0.1% cut in Utah’s income tax rate, and a $400 million one-time rebate that varies between $100 for low-income households and $1,345 for high-income households. On the other hand, tax cuts put more money in people’s hands to deal with higher-priced items.

Utah’s rate of inflation is one of the highest in the nation, and the largest factor is Utah’s housing market. Legislators are considering a number of policies to incentivize home building — perhaps the headline bill would reduce the number of public comment periods allowed before a development is built.

Health care is a focus for young Utahns, and Utah is expected to have a $250 million Medicaid health care surplus next year. They’re proposing using it by expanding eligibility for pregnant women in particular — first by raising the qualifying income threshold from 144% of the poverty level to 200% for them, then expanding postpartum care from 60 days to 12 months. Twenty-nine states have already taken that latter action.

However, the GOP side of the Legislature is also looking to pass bills that remove health care options for young Utahns, specifically transgender Utahns. Cox didn’t mention that topic in his address.

• Relatedly, abortion access is obviously at top of mind for young adults after the Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court this summer. In particular, Cox and most state legislators prefer to limit women’s access to abortions.

In particular, a joint resolution is proposed that would limit the ability of judges to grant injunctions preventing legislative changes — like the Utah’s abortion trigger law — from taking effect. Other bills would redefine abortion and abortion exceptions to make them friendlier to physicians, who otherwise feel they could be punished for non-abortion procedures.

• A topic like democracy reform and voting rights could refer to anything from gerrymandering to 2020 election conspiracy theories. Still, Cox addressed none of them in his speech. Cox and the Legislature, you’ll remember, approved the 2021 redistricting plan that made Utah’s voters less important than ever before, overriding the democratically supported Proposition 4. And yes, I’m still furious about that.

A few bills in the Legislature address elections, though. Perhaps the most notable to me is HB69, which would say that anyone who changed their party affiliation from April 1 to the date of a primary election would not get to have that change take effect until after that election. In other words, they’re looking to prevent Utahns from temporarily registering as Republican, therefore reducing the number of voters in those closed primary elections. Meanwhile, HB171 would end the ranked choice voting experiment in Utah. HB269 would require biennial election audits.

Gun control is important to youth nationwide, though Utah’s guns freely proliferate.

Two bills proposed would add a waiting period between when someone can buy a gun from a dealer and when it can be delivered. HB89 would create a five-day delivery delay for all types of guns, while SB50 would create a 10-day delivery delay for assault weapons. Both have exceptions for law enforcement and those with concealed carry permits. HB225 would require police to run a background check on an individual to ensure they’re lawfully allowed to own a firearm before returning that firearm from evidence after it has been seized.

• A number of bills relating to climate change are in the state Legislature — some would fight against climate change in Utah, others might exacerbate it. Utah Clean Energy’s legislative tracker shows the status of those bills.

In particular, of bills already filed, HB303 would create a tax on electric vehicles charging at electric charging stations, while simultaneously reducing Utah’s fuel tax. HB220, on the other hand, creates the Pollution Emission Reduction Act, which would take several steps to reduce emissions from various polluters and improve air quality.

Of course, the status of Utah’s water policy and maintaining the Great Salt Lake has taken center stage this session. Here’s our roundup of the legislation on the table.

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