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How Gov. Cox’s ambitious goals have met with legislative reality in his first year

Cox’s “One Utah Roadmap” faced detours imposed by the pandemic and lawmakers loathe to enacting restrictions.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lawmakers in the House Chamber during a special legislative session, at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

When Gov. Spencer Cox took over the top job in January 2021, he unveiled an ambitious blueprint for his first 500 days in office dubbed the “One Utah Roadmap.” It focuses on six priorities: economic advancement, education innovation and investment, rural matters, health security, equality and opportunity and streamlining state government. The plan was updated to version 2.0 in October.

Aspirational pursuits are always good politics but often give way to the cold reality of turning vision into concrete public policy. What has the Cox administration accomplished in its first year?

Using both public and internal documents, The Salt Lake Tribune dug into many of the promises in the One Utah Roadmap to see how Cox did in meeting his own goals during the first year, examining Cox’s efforts to increase diversity in the government, the state’s COVID-19 response, Utah’s economy, how Cox’s policies impacted rural Utah and public lands, tribal issues and public education.

The documents reveal an ambitious agenda, but so far Cox’s term has been defined largely by what legislators want to get done.

This year, much like last, has been shaped by pandemic. Cox has largely avoided conflict with the Legislature and ceded much of his health emergency powers to them by signing the “pandemic endgame bill.” He has avoided the mask debate and focused on encouraging vaccinations. He stopped giving updates on the virus in August and he’s supported the Legislature’s attempt to derail President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate.

Cox has succeeded in bringing more diversity into his administration, and embraced words like “equity” or “diversity,” but critics say he’s also been tepid on confronting racism directly, as when he didn’t mention racism in his response to the suicide of 10-year-old Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor, who was reportedly being bullied at her Utah school for being Black and autistic.

As drought bit the state hard, Cox encouraged conservation and allocated money to saving the Great Salt Lake in his budget proposal. But language mentioning climate change and air pollution is noticeably absent in the One Utah Roadmap. The documents show Cox wants to find ways of supporting Utah’s rural areas and that he wants to prioritize access and “multiple use” on public lands.

From the outside, Cox’s biggest win is the economy, which is roaring despite the pandemic, and an area he is eager to celebrate.

Leaning into the economy and pushing vaccines

Like his predecessor, Cox is leaning hard into the state’s economic successes, which have continued despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“During the ongoing pandemic, Gov. Cox kept schools open and the economy growing. Utah’s economy is now ranked the best in the nation with the lowest unemployment rate in state history,” Jennifer Napier-Pearce, his spokesperson, said in a statement.

Utah’s rainy-day reserves have increased under the Cox administration primarily due to the large budget surplus that materialized during the pandemic.

Not all of that is Cox’s doing. Under state law, a chunk of those surplus funds is required to be deposited into one of two reserve accounts at the end of each fiscal year. That includes 25% of excess funds in the state’s general fund and 25% of excess funds in the education fund. The state currently has about $1.07 billion in rainy day funds between its general, education, Medicaid and disaster recovery reserves. That’s up from $834.6 million in 2020.

“We’re well-positioned with our budget this year. We’ve actually recommended setting aside additional funds to go into the rainy day balance again,” Sophia Dicaro, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget said. “We want to be prudent with the resources we have and, I think, luckily, the legislature has been on the same page of that.”

Legislative leaders voted to set aside an additional $57 million for the rainy day funds in next year’s base budget, which is mirrored in Cox’s 2023 budget proposal.

Napier-Pearce touted the state’s successes in rolling out the COVID-19 vaccines, noting 2.1 million Utahns had received at least one dose with 4.5 million total doses administered. She added Cox’s water conservation and fire prevention efforts had an impact on the drought, saving billions of gallons of water and decreasing the number of wildfires this year by half.

“As a believer in the power of proximity, Gov. Cox has visited rural towns monthly, performed quarterly hands-on service projects with cabinet and senior staff, and met with many members and leaders of Utah’s diverse multicultural communities. He’s also created a unifying, data-driven vision for state government,” Napier-Pearce added.

The Legislature sets the agenda

But any progress made in the last year mostly came because Cox was able to get lawmakers on board. As legislative leaders are fond of pointing out, the Legislature sets the policy for the state while the governor’s job is to carry it out.

If you ask Gov. Spencer Cox and legislative leaders, his first year in office has been marked with great cooperation between the two branches of government. It indeed started that way.

Cox worked closely with leaders and lawmakers before last year’s general session. Cox and members of his incoming administration met with Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate several times following his election victory. One noteworthy meeting with House Republicans stretched nearly four hours.

“That’s the longest amount of time the executive branch has spent with our caucus in the last decade,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said following the Nov. meeting.

Cox’s first budget proposal reflected that spirit of cooperation, mainly mirroring priorities laid out by lawmakers before he took office.

The two branches began to diverge over the state’s pandemic response. After a right-wing backlash to pandemic restrictions and lockdowns, lawmakers moved to rein in the governor’s emergency powers. There wasn’t much Cox could do as the GOP supermajority muscled through those changes by veto-proof margins. Those changes handcuffed state officials earlier this year as COVID-19 cases began to surge again.

Cox also said he had “no choice” but to agree to the Legislature’s move to lift the state’s mask mandate on April 10, part of the so-called “pandemic endgame” bill. Cox wanted to keep the mask requirement in place until every adult in the state had a chance to get a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but lawmakers did not want to wait. Again, the bill passed with a veto-proof majority.

In May, Cox and lawmakers clashed over what to include on a special legislative session agenda. Lawmakers furiously lobbied Cox to include resolutions targeting the teaching of critical race theory in Utah’s schools and declaring the state a “2nd Amendment sanctuary.” The governor angered GOP legislators when he refused the request. Ultimately, they defied him by holding an “extraordinary session” to pass the resolutions.

Before the start of the current school year, Cox was toying with the idea of reinstating a mask mandate to slow the spread of the virus in classrooms, especially as cases were on the rise again. Cox pleaded with lawmakers to work with him to find a solution since any potential action he could take would likely be overturned by lawmakers in short order. Lawmakers promised to form a working group to collaborate with Cox, but there’s no indication that either side has followed through.

It’s not all conflict between the executive and legislative branches. Cox and lawmakers are in accord over the Biden administration’s decision to reinstate the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. The state has mounted a legal challenge to that expansion.

The governor and Legislature are unified on pushing back against the government mandating vaccinations against COVID-19. The state has joined several multistate lawsuits against the Biden administration’s rules requiring the vaccine for government employees and testing or vaccinations for large private employers. They’ve also moved to weaken any vaccine requirements.

But that comity only goes so far. Cox has promised to block any legislation to prevent private employers from requiring the vaccine for employers. There are already two proposals for the 2022 session to limit the ability of private companies to require vaccinations for employees and customers.

— Tribune reporter Kim Bojórquez contributed to this article.

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