Utah Gov. Spencer Cox jokes that his first 100 days have felt, at times, more like “100 years.” But on other days, “it feels like it’s been 100 minutes,” he said in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Since he assumed the state’s highest office in January, Cox has taken the helm of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, negotiated complex public policies with Utah lawmakers, issued a number of executive orders and signed hundreds of bills — all while managing the ongoing pandemic.
Cox began on his to-do list right away, pledging to speed up vaccine distribution, move more jobs and investment to rural areas, and make his mark during the first legislative session of his administration.
Here’s a look at five things he said he’d do in his initial 100 days — and where he is on keeping those promises:
1. Speed up vaccine distribution.
Cox said early on that speeding up the state’s vaccine distribution was the “No. 1 priority” of his new administration.
And 100 days in, he lauds that effort as a success, thanks to the “hundreds, maybe even thousands of people working in concert to do something that we’ve never done before, on this scale at least.”
It’s difficult to measure the success of Utah’s rollout in comparison to other states, in part because the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that many analyses are based on is flawed.
The Tribune reported recently that a state reporting error has made Utah’s vaccination rate look worse than it actually is in CDC data. And the analyses based on those numbers, which show Utah among the bottom states in vaccination rate rankings, typically don’t take into consideration the state’s high number of residents who are too young to be vaccinated.
But Cox points to other measures, noting that Utah is among the best states at getting the shots it has received into arms. Utah has administered more than 85% of the doses that have been delivered to the state, according to CDC data — the 10th highest rate in the nation as of earlier this week.
Utah also has had high uptake among vulnerable groups — 80% of those 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose so far. And it has been able to surpass original projections for when people could access their shots, opening up appointments to every state resident age 16 and older on April 1.
As more than 1.1 million Utahns have now received their first dose of the vaccine, Cox said the local health departments and private pharmacies that have been distributing the shots have “actually exceeded my expectations from what I was hoping for.”
If he could do it all again, though, the new governor said he would aim to get more vaccines to older Utahns faster, noting that there were times early on when the state was offering shots to health care workers but hadn’t built enough demand into the system, “so we had vaccine sitting on shelves.”
“That was the piece that I was most upset about,” he said. “And that’s where we made the changes and started getting them out to where they would do the most good. And so that was the right change to make. You know, in retrospect, we would have done that from day one. But we were doing what was recommended by the CDC, and everyone in the nation was doing it that way.”
2. Focus on rural communities.
Cox, a sixth-generation resident of a small town in Sanpete County, campaigned as the only gubernatorial candidate who would come to the governor’s mansion with a perspective from outside the Wasatch Front.
Within days of his inauguration, he opened an office on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City — and he points to the outpost as a way of bringing state government to rural communities that can feel ignored.
“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, that people just feel seen,” he said. “They’re excited to have an opportunity to engage closer to where they live.”
Cox said he visits the southern Utah office at least once a month, and various senior staff members and interns keep it running daily when he’s not around.
In another early move, Cox signed an executive order aimed at increasing the number of jobs in rural areas by directing state agencies to look at moving jobs into these communities. Since January, the Department of Workforce Services alone has added more than 50 jobs off the Wasatch Front.
The order also asked the Utah Board of Higher Education to craft a plan for offering additional training opportunities to residents in these areas, and tasked state technical services officials with figuring out what connectivity improvements are needed to expand teleworking options in these communities.
Cox also endorsed a slate of bills designed to promote rural economic development, including one that created a Utah Main Street Program to revitalize downtown neighborhoods in cities across the state. The program is expected to direct about $355,000 each year to local governments for training, financial assistance and other costs, according to a legislative fiscal analysis.
Another bill modified a tax incentive program to better help businesses in rural Utah, while a different proposal passed this year established an “infrastructure bank” — to help fund road and water projects for the statewide inland port effort. Supporters say that investing $75 million in state funds to launch the bank would yield massive economic development benefits all over the state.
“It’s about incentivizing the right jobs in the state and focusing on those areas of the state that have not had the same success,” Cox said of his approach to job creation. “It’s a really drastic change to the way we do economic development, and I think it’s much more nuanced.”
Senate President Stuart Adams said Cox already has proven himself to be a “champion” for rural Utah, working in conjunction with the state Legislature to take advantage of the opportunities the COVID-19 pandemic has presented for teleworking.
“He has pushed rural economic development,” Adams said, “and I actually believe that’s a priority for the Legislature, too.”
3. Prioritize public education.
Until the coronavirus hit, Cox’s campaign named education as its top priority. And while some of his longer-term visions — like increasing starting teacher salaries to $60,000 per year — have had to take a backseat to the pandemic, he notes that he was able to keep some of his promises during the first 100 days.
Among them was delivering, with the state Legislature, $1,500 bonuses for educators in recognition of the burden they’ve shouldered during the coronavirus.
Cox also has promised to narrow the funding gap between schools in wealthy communities and those in lower income and rural areas — a goal he says will be moved along with the help of the nearly $500 million allocated in this year’s budget toward public education.
“The fact that we’ve been able to get kids in school and that we did get that historic funding that will help us with some of the equity pieces, which I’ve been very outspoken on, that’s something that’s meaningful to me,” he said.
4. Veto more bills.
As the 45-day legislative session got underway earlier this year, Cox indicated that he was likely to veto more bills than his predecessors had — though he encouraged lawmakers not to “take it personally.”
“It doesn’t mean that I’m bad or you’re weak,” he said. “It is simply part of a process. A gloriously messy and inspired process.”
But when the dust of the session had settled, Cox vetoed just four bills and let three others become law without his signature. His predecessor, former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, vetoed five bills in 2020.
Cox’s first veto was of a bill sponsored by his brother-in-law, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, whose proposal sought to regulate the way social media platforms moderate content. Cox also quashed legislation to require state or local leaders to meet with school districts or private schools before issuing public health orders that affect them, and he blocked other proposals on local building regulations and rules for the state’s hemp program.
A representative of Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive government accountability group, gives Cox some credit for exerting more influence over the legislative process than his predecessors. But there were a few notable exceptions, said Lauren Simpson, the alliance’s policy director, including the so-called pandemic endgame bill that lifted the statewide mask mandate April 10.
“Utah has a reasonable governor and an unreasonable Legislature, and so in many ways, it’s Cox’s job to protect the people from the most extreme impulses of the Legislature,” she said. “The endgame bill is a really good example of that. He had the power, and he could’ve done more.”
Cox said as the legislative session ended that many of the “terrible bills” that he opposed — including a bill that would have barred transgender girls from participating in female K-12 sports — hadn’t made it to his desk, which may have accounted for the more relaxed use of his veto pen than promised.
5. Build a strong relationship with the Legislature.
Cox said he’s put a “tremendous amount of effort” into his relationship with the state Legislature.
After he was elected, he said, he met with every member of the legislative body, both one-on-one and in groups. And during the session, he had weekly meetings with leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
“And those relationships, I believe, are paying dividends not for me but for the people of the state of Utah,” he said. “I think we got a better product that way. I think we avoided some of the controversies that normally beset these types of sessions.”
Today, Cox said he would rank his relationship with lawmakers on a scale of one to 10 as “a 10 right now,” with “very little tension at all” between the two branches of government.
Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who was the sponsor of a controversial measure limiting the emergency powers of the governor in a long-term crisis, said he was “really impressed” with the level of communication the governor cultivated with the Legislature during the session — and also with the way Cox handled bill negotiations.
While past governors have sent legal counsel to negotiate, Cox enlisted Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, a former state lawmaker, to participate in the conversations, Vickers said. That allowed for more access to the executive branch and a more “seamless process,” he said.
“I was quite impressed with how he handled the session,” Vickers said, noting that he would give the new administration an “A” grade for their performance so far. “Doesn’t mean they’re absolutely perfect, and of course we’ve had some disagreements. But overall the effort and input and way he’s handled it, I give him high marks.”
Cox is similar to his predecessors and many Utah politicians in prizing collegiality and polite discourse, Simpson said. But while functioning relationships are important, she said, she’d like to see more willingness from Cox to rock the boat when it counts in the future.
“What Utah really needs is leaders who have the discernment and the backbone to recognize when the people they’re negotiating with are not negotiating in good faith or being reasonable,” she said. “At the end of the day, I think your job is not to keep the peace with legislative leadership. Your loyalty and your responsibility is to the people of Utah.”