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Utah’s new governor will face immediate challenges, reaches out to state lawmakers

(Steve Griffin/Deseret News, via AP, Pool) Utah Gov.-elect Spencer Cox announces details related to the upcoming transition of leadership in the Gold Room at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

Utah will soon have a new governor for the first time since 2009. In the ensuing 11 years, the working relationship between the executive branch and the Legislature has taken on a familiar, almost comfortable, rhythm.

Then the pandemic hit and things got a bit testier. The economy crashed. And Gov. Gary Herbert started issuing emergency orders and mandates that upset some of the most conservative lawmakers.

Herbert’s term ends and Gov.-elect Spencer Cox’s begins in January. It is possible that the tension that now exists will carry on. It’s possible a new governor means a new direction. At this point, there’s only so much information to go on.

Here are three key points:

• Cox has established relationships. He’s been lieutenant governor for seven years and Herbert plucked him from the Utah House, where he served nine months before that.

• Transitions between administrations in Utah don’t happen often. This will be only the fifth time in the past 30 years.

• Cox faces a set of urgent challenges, mostly stemming from the ongoing pandemic, and traditionally there’s a rocky start between a new governor and the Legislature as both branches try to assert themselves.

‘Remarkable’ meeting

Cox signaled that he’s ready to engage with Utah lawmakers as he took questions from Republican and Democratic lawmakers in hours-long meetings last week.

His discussion with Republicans dragged on for nearly four hours and became rowdy at times, when some of the more libertarian-minded members clashed with the incoming governor over the perceived infringement on personal liberties in the name of slowing the coronavirus.

“It was one of the more remarkable meetings I’ve been in,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. He said Cox and his team spent about 2½ hours listening to House members and answering questions, which followed 90 minutes of presentation about the state’s response to the pandemic.

Herbert left the meeting early. Cox stayed.

“You will see a significant emphasis in our administration with the Legislature, working very closely with them on the biggest issues,” said Cox, touting his “wonderful relationships” with leaders in both the House and Senate.

The House speaker seemed impressed, saying of the recent meeting, “That’s the longest amount of time the executive branch has spent with our caucus in the last decade.”

Wilson noted Cox was able to give as good as he got during the freewheeling discussion.

“He’s very willing to listen and receive feedback, but he’s not a shrinking violet,” Wilson said. “He’s going to say what he thinks and will advocate for his perspective.”

It’s not the first time Cox and his team have met with lawmakers since Election Day, conferring several times with legislative leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers to build a rapport.

“He’s been accessible, and he’s reached out,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton. “I think people feel like they can actually talk with him.”

‘A known quantity’

It has been 16 years since Utah had a governor who served in the Legislature, the last being Gov. Olene Walker, who headed the executive branch during the 2004 session. Before that, Gov. Norm Bangerter, who left the governor’s mansion in 1993, had served in the Utah House for a decade.

And Cox, like Herbert before him, reached into the Legislature to find his second in command. He tapped state Sen. Deidre Henderson, who has served eight years in the Legislature, to be his lieutenant governor.

“We’re a known quantity,” Cox said. “It’s not like this is somebody who hasn’t had any experience in the legislative and executive branches that are here for the first time.”

Those strong ties should serve Cox well when he assumes control in January, according to Adam Brown, a political scientist at Brigham Young University.

“He’s got stronger ties to the Legislature, not only because he served there,” Brown said, “but because the L.G. is the governor’s liaison to the Legislature, so he’s maintained those ties with old legislative colleagues and built them with newer ones.”

Will he battle or bend?

What remains unknown is how much daylight there will be between Cox’s approach to the job and how Herbert managed the relationship.

Earlier this year, Cox was reluctant to break stride with Herbert’s approach to managing the pandemic, even refusing to comment on whether he favored a statewide mask requirement during his campaign.

“His reticence to disagree publicly with the governor or the Legislature on the state’s pandemic response is hard to interpret since it could be strategic for campaign reasons, at least up until he clinched the GOP nomination,” Brown said, “or it could reflect a real hesitation to cross swords.

“Yet the Legislature has no hesitation,” he added, “to pick (and often win) fights with the governor and with local governments.”

At least in the early going, Cox’s seeming willingness to listen and find common ground has legislators feeling enthusiastic. But the early comity doesn’t mean lawmakers won’t test the new administration’s resolve.

“There may be a few legislators who do that, and I guess it’s natural,” Cox said. “But I would say that’s been the case in every legislative session that I’ve been associated with.”

One such test could be an effort by lawmakers to rein in the governor’s emergency powers. Both of these coequal branches of government guard their powers jealously, and typically do not respond kindly to any breaches of those boundaries, perceived or otherwise. But the lingering coronavirus pandemic has been an unexpected stressor.

For the past month or so, Republicans in the House and Senate have been meeting in what has been described as small groups to discuss ways to limit the governor’s emergency powers, an issue they plan to tackle during the upcoming session, which begins in January. House Majority Assistant Whip Val Peterson, R-Orem, and Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, are heading up those efforts.

“The fundamental principle,” Adams said, “is the Legislature makes the laws and the executive branch implements them.”

Urging caution

Lawmakers have been chafing about the ongoing state of emergency due to the pandemic. They say the law granting extraordinary powers to the governor never envisioned a situation in which the emergency would stretch for months and months.

Earlier in the year, legislators passed a bill requiring the governor to give them 24-hour notice before taking any emergency action that is not in immediate response to an episode. Lawmakers made a few attempts to push stronger changes in special sessions, but never reached a consensus.

Cox agrees that the law, as written, never anticipated a global pandemic and changes are needed. But what those changes will encompass is the million-dollar question. Cox is not likely to agree to something that he feels infringes on his authority, while the Republican supermajorities could muster enough votes to disregard any veto threats from the newly elected executive and ram changes through.

“My caution to them is not to overreact to something that happens every hundred years,” Cox said, “and let’s be careful not to hurt the state’s ability to respond to real emergencies and situations that need quick action.”

The coronavirus also has lawmakers anticipating a difficult budget year ahead. Millions of dollars in federal aid tied to the pandemic is set to expire come January. Tightening the state’s purse strings might put a damper on any initiatives from the new administration.

The country will also have a new, Democratic president. Cox’s administration will have to work with President-elect Joe Biden on some issues, which could run into partisan opposition from some in the Legislature.

Adams isn’t worried about any potential rifts at this point.

“There may be some disagreements,” he said, “but at the end of the day, we should be able to come together on this.”

“There’s eternal optimism in both politics and real estate,” joked Wilson, the House speaker and a developer. “There’s plenty of room for us to discuss this and come up with a bill that’s good policy.”

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