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The number of vaccinated Utahns continues to rise and the breakneck 45-day state legislative session ended last month. Now, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox says he plans to work toward more progress on his longer-term goals than he was able to in his first 100 days in office.
“These first 100 days have been the opportunity of a lifetime and I’m grateful the people of Utah have entrusted me and my team, the lieutenant governor, with this incredible responsibility,” Cox said in a recent phone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “But I really believe that the next 100 days and 100 days after that are going to be even better.”
Utahns should expect “more of the same” from his new administration, he said, as far as tone and process. But here are three specific issues the governor said he plans to work on over the next 100 days.
1. Equity in education
“We’re working very closely with the state superintendent, as well as the state school board, on finding ways to get more funding and to help kids that are struggling in our lower income communities, whether along the Wasatch Front or in rural Utah,” he said.
Cox said big-dollar investments the state made in education in this year’s legislative session will help move that goal along.
He didn’t specify what steps he will take this spring, but he has expressed interest in the past in rethinking the “entire structure” for how schools are funded.
While the state provides the same amount of funding for each student across Utah, local property taxes also furnish money for public schools — and that’s where the disparities emerge. Cox and legislative leaders have been exploring a redistribution of the annual interest from the state’s land grant trust fund so a larger share goes to students in less affluent areas.
2. Disparities in the health of Utahns
Even as he anticipates that the threat of the pandemic will subside in the coming months, Cox said he’s planning to maintain a focus on health over the next 100 days.
The new governor said he specifically wants to work on combating “social determinants of health,” or the ways someone’s environment can contribute to poorer health.
Up to 60% of health outcomes are influenced by a person’s living environment and demographics — such as their access to food and transportation, or their level of family support or education, according to the Alliance for the Determinants of Health. The alliance is a coalition of government, health care, education and community organizations already working on this front in Utah.
“This is pandemic related, but it’s something we started on prior to the pandemic, and that is trying to understand the impact that things besides access to health care have on health outcomes,” Cox said. “Your ZIP code should not determine how long you live.”
Over the next few months, the administration plans to explore “how can we help people that are struggling get access to food and transportation and housing and all those other things that play a role in health outcomes,” he added.
One way Cox may be able to help: By backing an increase in the size of the University of Utah’s medical school, which will require legislative buy-in.
The U. and Intermountain Healthcare recently announced they are partnering to create a new student scholars program within the Department of Population Health Sciences, with Intermountain investing $50 million over multiple years to help train physicians to consider social factors that influence a patient’s health. Poverty and food insecurity, for example, can lead to chronic stress that erodes health, the U. said in a news release.
The initiative will develop a curriculum, create endowed professorships and provide tuition support for medical students accepted into the program. The U. plans to have 10 students in the entering class of 2021 and 2022, and 25 students in subsequent classes, a news release said. The school said it will seek legislative and accreditation approvals to increase the number of medical students in each class.
3. Unity in politics
Cox made national headlines in the final days of his campaign by filming a series of ads with his Democratic rival, calling for greater civility in politics and encouraging people to accept the outcome of the 2020 election.
Now that he’s one of Utah’s most prominent public officials, he believes he has an even greater responsibility to “lower the temperature and rhetoric” in politics.
The day of Jan. 6, when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, stands out to Cox as among the most difficult of his gubernatorial term so far, he said — and as “awful and tragic and toxic” proof of the destructiveness of the current political climate. That day, several hundred Trump loyalists also protested outside the Utah Capitol, and concerns about potential violence prompted Cox to tell his staffers to work from home.
“I think it’s one of the darkest days in our country’s history, and something that I had spoken a lot about,” he said. “Something that I had warned about and something that then happened.”
Cox didn’t offer specifics, but said his job going forward will be to fight for his beliefs passionately but respectfully and to look for ways to unite people of differing beliefs.
“I promised I would govern like that,” he said. “And we’ll do our very best to always govern like that.”