Utah Gov. Cox says he would veto school voucher bill. Here’s why

The contested bill seeks to establish a taxpayer-funded school voucher program.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox is joined by other leaders in the old Supreme Court Room at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday said he won’t sign a bill that would create a taxpayer-funded, $36 million school voucher program.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, would establish the “Hope Scholarship Program,” funded by the state’s education fund to pay for a student’s private school tuition.

That bill narrowly passed the House Revenue and Taxation Committee on a 6-5 vote this week. If the bill were to arrive at the governor’s desk for a signature, however, Cox said he would veto it.

“You can’t take money that could go to our schools and allow it to go to private schools when you’re not fully funding the education system in our state,” Cox told reporters, during his monthly news conference on PBS Utah.

While he supports school vouchers, Cox said Utah schools are underfunded and teachers, who earn an average starting salary of $45,000, are underpaid.

“When teachers are making $60,000 a year to start, I will fully support vouchers. I’m all in on vouchers, but we have a long way to go before we get there. I want to get there,” he said. “I can’t wait to get there, but now is not the time.”

Earlier this legislative session, Cox signed a nearly $200 million tax relief package that would have gone towards the state’s education fund.

In a statement on Thursday afternoon, Pierucci said she has been in constant communication with the governor’s office about the bill.

”Bills change and evolve through the legislative process,” she said. ”His comments today do not change the legislative process or change my commitment to fine tuning this policy and finding better ways to empower parents and better meet the education needs of Utah’s students. I hope he will keep (an) open mind in reviewing the final policy proposal in this bill.”

Elections integrity

During the news conference, Cox said he didn’t support a bill sponsored by state Rep. Phil Lyman that would abolish Utah’s mail-in-voting system.

“Voting is a constitutional right and I’m not in favor of bills that make constitutional rights harder,” Cox said. “We should be proud of the way we do elections in this state. We are a model for the nation and we believe that that will continue.”

Instead, Cox said he is backing a bill sponsored by Rep. Jon Hawkins that would enhance Utah’s elections security. That proposed legislation would require video surveillance at unattended ball drop boxes throughout the state.

Preserving the Great Salt Lake

This week, several lawmakers joined the Utah National Guard to tour the Great Salt Lake via helicopter. Cox said the tour galvanized lawmakers to support preservation efforts of the drying lake.

“There is no substitute to seeing it in person and even those who are the biggest advocates for the Great Salt Lake were shocked when they got up there and saw that bird’s-eye view of how dry it really is and how small the lake has gotten,” Cox said.

Cox said he also supported a bill by House Speak Brad Wilson that would allot $40 million to preserve the Great Salt Lake. Last year, Cox had originally called for setting aside $45 million in his government budget proposal to support the Great Salt Lake, calling it “one of the most important ecosystems in our state.”

The first-term governor called the initial investment “a great start,” which could potentially lead to hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to protecting the lake.

Transgender athletes

Cox also discussed his optimism for a bill that would create a commission to evaluate a transgender athlete’s physical characteristics before allowing them to play in school sports.

“I’m hopeful we can get it across the finish line,” Cox said.

He commended the bill’s author, state Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, for listening to both sides of the issue and finding a potential solution. Last year, Cox spoke out against a bill introduced in the Utah Legislature that sought to bar transgender girls from participating in certain sports.

Cox called this year’s bill an improvement but stopped short of saying he would sign the legislation in its current form.

“This is a very different bill. This is unlike anything that has been passed or attempted anywhere in the country and so I’m anxious and hopeful that we can get this issue off the table,” he said, noting that there’s very few, if any, transgender athletes, participating in school sports across the state.