Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday implored Utahns not to give up on the ideals of America, saying in his annual State of the State speech that he worries “unsubstantiated claims and flat-out lies” about elections are shaking the nation to its very foundations.
Even those who identify as ardent defenders of the nation’s freedom and system of governance have been guilty of actively undermining it, he continued.
“I’ve heard some argue that the Constitution will someday, if not now, hang by a thread and need rescuing,” he said. “I worry that what a few of them fail to see is that, they — just like those for whom they have so much disdain and contempt — are daily hacking away at those cords, recklessly believing that they will know exactly when to stop slicing and start saving.”
Cox, who is in the second year of his term, warned against assuming voting security must come at the expense of accessibility to the ballot box.
His comments, delivered to the Utah Legislature, come after lawmakers have called for an election integrity audit and as some in the state look to eliminate by-mail voting. Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, whose office oversees elections in the state, has said she’s confident in the security of the state’s elections and condemned those who are “needlessly sowing the seeds of doubt.”
Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne also addressed the election misinformation in a prerecorded response to Cox’s speech.
“Utahns want their elections system to be fair secure, and accessible, not politicized or needlessly and falsely maligned,” the West Valley Democrat said. “We urge the governor and our legislative colleagues to take a stand against the extremist voices of a fringe minority and work with us.”
In this time of rancor and division, Cox said Utahns must lead as an example to the rest of the nation.
“I firmly believe in my heart that if America is the last great hope of the world, then Utah is the last great hope of America,” he said.
He called on people of color, rural Utahs, Republicans and Democrats alike not to lose faith in America and its promise, sharing a story about his own ancestor who was driven to Utah by religious persecution.
Though his great-great-great grandfather Orville Sutherland Cox “had every reason to hate the United States of America,” one of his first acts upon reaching Utah was to fell a giant pine tree to raise a Liberty Pole in Salt Lake City.
“This was the first pole to carry the American flag in the Salt Lake Valley,” Cox said.
The governor also addressed Utah’s record-breaking surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, fueled by the highly infectious omicron variant.
Though the state now has one of the nation’s highest average daily infection rates, Cox said he’s encouraged that its hospitalization rate is among the lowest in the U.S. Some of the data, including case rates in Summit County, offer hope that the coronavirus surge might soon begin to abate, he added.
But he argued keeping kids out of school shouldn’t be part of the state’s campaign against the disease.
“Our children need us to be strong,” he said. “They need us to point to a hopeful future. And they need to be in school, in person, face-to-face with their friends and teachers.”
Last week, Cox and legislative leaders announced they were suspending mandatory testing at public schools with coronavirus outbreaks, in part because of a shortage in testing resources. The Legislature in its first week of the session has been moving ahead with legislation that would codify that change, ending the so-called Test to Stay program until state leaders choose to reinstate it.
During his last State of the State, Cox was a newly inaugurated governor who vowed to hold the Utah Legislature in check with his veto pen. However, during the initial year of his term, the governor has seen his emergency powers checked by Utah lawmakers who have knocked down mask mandates and given themselves the power to overturn state and local health orders.
And while Democratic lawmakers said they agree with many of the governor’s priorities, they emphasized the importance of following the recommendations of medical and public health experts as the state continues to battle COVID-19.
“We know that masks, testing protocols, and social distancing measures work to stop the virus from spreading,” House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said. “And we know that vaccine requirements work so businesses can stay open and keep their employees and their customers protected.”
The Utah Way
Cox also focused his speech on protecting and improving Utah’s quality of life, recommending a $160 million grocery tax credit for low- and middle-income families, action to address the state’s extreme drought and work on lowering the cost of health care.
He also called for swift action to address a growing housing crisis and lack of rural opportunities, warning that these problems could force young people out of Utah.
“If the federal government is going to continue recklessly spending money borrowed from future generations,” he said, “it is our duty to invest in projects that will benefit our children and grandchildren.”
To improve the state’s education system, Cox is proposing additional funding for at-risk and disadvantaged students, the elimination of school fees for required coursework and measures to support 3rd-grade reading.
With all of this work to do, he said, the state should follow the “Utah way” in tackling obstacles — pushing back on “cynics” who call the slogan corny or hollow and on those who distill difficult issues to easy binaries.
“Here in Utah, we proudly protect religious liberties and love and proudly protect our LGBTQ neighbors,” he said. “We protect our unborn and support our single mothers and children facing poverty and trauma. And we fully stand behind our beloved people of color and our beloved people in law enforcement.”
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said Cox and the Legislature are largely on the same page “because we work from the same conservative foundation.”
And Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a statement that he agrees with Cox that “Utah is the hope of America,” although he has different ideas for how to provide the $160 million in tax relief to state residents.
Legislative leaders have expressed interest in an income-tax cut rather than a grocery credit.
On the other hand, King spoke against slashing income taxes, which supply public education in the state.
“Every income tax dollar we cut away, we are cutting our investment in our children and future generations,” he said. “Instead of sweeping cuts, let’s support targeted tax proposals for our seniors; for our families; for those with fixed incomes; and importantly, let’s eliminate the state’s regressive sales tax on food.”