Speaking to a moment of political rancor and pandemic fatigue, Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday urged his fellow Utahns to join him in repairing the inequities and divisions that have weakened the state’s foundation.
“Now is our time to be bold in tackling the tough issues. Now is our time to be fearless in examining our flaws,” the newly inaugurated governor said during the first State of the State address of his term. “Now is our time to reject hate and make opportunity available to all Utahns.”
Fulfilling those lofty goals, he said, will require determination — and will begin with reimagining an education funding system that has let down Utah children, questioning long-held assumptions and rejecting political tribalism.
The state is entering the year battle-tested by the pandemic, Cox said, noting that the virus has taxed the health care system, demanded huge sacrifices from educators and claimed the lives of more than 1,500 Utahns.
It even shaped the State of the State speech, which Cox said was a historically brief 18 minutes in an attempt to limit the amount of time his listeners shared the Utah House chamber and risked disease transmission. Onlookers wore masks, and Cox entered the room with fist-bumps rather than handshakes.
But the governor reassured his audience that “help is on the way,” saying changes he’s made to the vaccine rollout have sped up the inoculation process and brought the state that much closer to the pandemic’s end.
This month, Cox issued an executive order requiring facilities to administer doses of the COVID-19 vaccine within a week of receipt. The state reclaims vaccine doses that have gone unused for longer than seven days and distributes them to other facilities in need.
Speaking at a news conference earlier Thursday, Cox reported that state partners are close to meeting his administration’s seven-day target times.
The public health crisis has also exposed what Cox called “cracks in our foundation,” and he said during his State of the State speech that Utah isn’t living up to its constitutional promise of a high-quality education for all children.
The governor said while most people agree with the old expression that it’s better to teach a man to fish than give him a fish, affluent children often get the educational equivalent of “a speedboat, a graphite rod and a Fish Finder.”
“But in too many of our rural communities and communities of color, we give kids a stick and a string and then we can’t figure out why they don’t catch as many fish,” he said. “Education has always been called the great equalizer, but it can’t be that way if our kids are not treated equally.”
Cox praised the state lawmakers in the audience for their willingness to increase education spending this session, but he also asked for their help in reexamining these funding structures more broadly with an eye toward bridging the gap between schools in affluent and underserved areas.
Ensuring educational opportunity for all is a major step toward addressing the calls for racial justice that filled streets in Salt Lake City and across the nation last year, he added.
Cox also stressed the dangers of the “contempt, tribalism and discord” that have riven the nation in recent weeks and asked Utahns to listen rather than lashing out. In just his first few weeks on the job, he’s grappled with threats of unrest at the Utah Capitol and declared a state of emergency as a precaution.
And referencing the recent anti-mask protest outside the house of state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, Cox suggested that people should try volunteering at a food bank instead of organizing demonstrations like these.
Still, there is a place for political disagreement as long as it’s civil, he qualified, putting state lawmakers on notice that they might encounter more pushback from his administration than from prior ones.
“I’m going to veto some of your bills. Probably more than my predecessors. Please don’t take it personally,” he told state legislators, who kicked off their 45-day session earlier this week. “You are going to override some of those vetoes. I promise not to take that personally. It doesn’t mean that I’m bad or you’re weak. It is simply part of a process. A gloriously messy and inspired process.”
However, he continued, “there must be no room for contempt or hate. We are friends. We must always be friends.”
The state’s booming growth will present its own challenges in coming years, Cox said, drawing attention to his administration’s plan for protecting air quality and enhancing transportation systems, water resources and housing stock to serve growing needs. He spoke about expanding job training by investing in trade and technical institutions. And he voiced support for an $80 million tax cut this year to relieve Utah’s senior citizens and families.
In a statement released after Cox’s speech, Senate President Stuart Adams echoed the importance of providing an excellent education to Utah’s children and said his colleagues “stand strong in our recommendation in December” to restore the 6% per-student funding increase that was lost during last year’s pandemic budget cuts.
“The Legislature looks forward to having the difficult conversations needed for our state to progress,” Adams, R-Layton, said. “Policy should not be created by the executive branch or judges but should be a deliberative process reserved for a larger, more diverse group of elected officials. The Senate remains committed to working through the process to find the best outcomes for Utahns.”
House Speaker Brad Wilson tweeted after the address that he and Cox “share many of the same goals for Utah.”
“As we work together, we will ensure Utah moves into the future with a solid and stable foundation,” the Kaysville Republican wrote.
Democratic leaders in the Utah House and Senate responded to the speech by expressing willingness to work across the aisle with the Cox administration — but also by vowing to act as a watchdog in the GOP-dominated state government.
Sen. Luz Escamilla urged the Legislature to take meaningful action on the dozens of police reform bills filed this session, following a year of protests and demand for racial justice.
“While the promises and considerations of reform for a more equitable future are significant,” the Salt Lake City Democrat said in a prepared response, “it will be critical that we hold all elected officials accountable to finding meaningful solutions.”
House Democrats noted that the decennial redistricting process will play out this year based on the 2020 Census and said many Utahns have felt disenfranchised by past efforts that seemed to focus on protecting the Republican political advantage.
“As Democrats, we will demand an open process that produces fair maps that represent Utahns,” Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, said. “As legislators, we must honor the will of the people, so that their voices are truly heard.”
But although Democrats are vastly outnumbered in the state Capitol, House Minority Leader Brian King said he’s encouraged by the issues Cox’s administration has been highlighting.
“We are glad to see Utah’s executive leadership coming around to our point of view and proposing policies and actions that Democrats have long been fighting for,” the Salt Lake City Democrat said. “Things like better funding for education, investing in public infrastructure like our state and public transit, and paid parental leave.”