Utah lawmakers to meet Friday to override Gov. Cox’s veto on bill to ban transgender girls in female school sports

Legislative leaders believe they have enough votes to override the veto.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun sets on the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

Utah legislative leaders on Tuesday announced their plan to meet this Friday for an override session minutes after Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed a bill that would prevent transgender girls from participating in school sports that match their gender identities.

In a letter addressed to Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson, Cox defended his decision to veto the proposed legislation.

[Read more: Gov. Spencer Cox’s statement on vetoing the transgender sports]

“I know both of you are committed to these same ideals and that we have worked very hard together to resolve the many issues surrounding transgender student participation in sports. Unfortunately, HB11 has several fundamental flaws and should be reconsidered,” Cox wrote.

Wilson, in a statement, said he expects the Utah Legislature will have enough votes to override Cox’s veto.

“Governor Cox made his intention to veto the bill clear from the day it was passed so his action today was expected,” Wilson said. “Members of the Legislature, including the sponsor, have worked tirelessly for more than a year to find the best way to approach a complex issue and I anticipate that we will have sufficient votes to override the veto. Ultimately, the Legislature recognizes the value of girls athletics and our members want to ensure girls have the level playing field to compete that was created by Title IX.”

House and Senate Republicans met Monday evening to discuss a potential veto override. Senate Republicans were overwhelmingly in favor of holding a veto override session. The House GOP caucus also seemed inclined to support a veto override attempt, according to legislative sources.

The same day, Cox called for a special legislative session surrounding the legality and financial issues of HB11 slated for Friday.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, the sponsor of HB11, during the final night of the Utah Legislative Session on March 4.

An expedited timeline ahead of conventions

Lawmakers may have elections in mind by acting quickly. When HB11 passed on the final hours of the 2022 session, support was below the two-thirds threshold needed to successfully override Cox’s veto. However, many legislative Republicans are facing stiff competition in their re-election bids, and those opponents are using HB11 against them. County conventions begin on Saturday. A Friday override of Cox’s veto would neutralize the issue as a campaign wedge.

State Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, who sponsored HB11, on Tuesday said she was disappointed by Cox’s veto of the bill and said she hoped the Utah Legislature would continue to fight for women’s sports.

“High school girls across the state have expressed their concerns, and we owe it to them to listen. Sports are their opportunity to overcome obstacles and break barriers. But in order to do that, they need a fair playing field,” she said in a statement.

During the final day of the legislative session earlier this month, McCay introduced a last-minute amendment to the bill that sought to prevent transgender girls from participating in female school sports. Following the amended bill’s passage in both chambers, Cox immediately vowed to veto it, citing that the proposed legislation had not gone through proper debate.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, during debate of HB11 in the Utah Senate on Friday, March 4.

“It is important to note that a complete ban was never discussed, never contemplated, never debated and never received any public input prior to the Legislature passing the bill on the 45th and final night of the session. For this reason, many legislators who might have otherwise supported the policy felt compelled to vote against it,” Cox said in his letter.

McCay said that he believes the House and Senate can each find four votes to flip to gain the two-thirds majority support required to override Cox’s veto of HB11.

Cox on his veto: Law affects just four children out of 75,000 athletes

During a news conference last week, Cox said a transgender athlete ban would open the state to litigation, adding that a legal battle could potentially bankrupt the Utah High School Activities Association. He also worried that the bill had no mention of compensation for school districts or the Utah High School Activities Association in the case that they were sued over a ban.

Dave Spatafore, a lobbyist for the Utah High School Activities Association, which represents 160 high schools in the state, said the organization remains neutral about the bill. However, if the legislation passes and the organization is sued over the ban, Spatafore said he would like the legislature to “indemnify us and pay all of our legal bills.”

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, praised Cox’s “moral courage” to veto HB11. He said he expected legislative leaders in the House and Senate would “twist up arms and compel compliance” in order to get the necessary votes.

“We’re saddened to see the zealotry of Utah’s legislature to override,” Williams said. “This override is not about protecting women’s sports. It’s about protecting lawmakers’ political seats from extremists within their own party.”

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks about HB11 during a press conference on Friday, March 4. Cox vetoed the bill, which the Legislature is planning on overriding.

Cox said that out of the nearly 75,000 athletes participating in Utah school sports, four are registered as transgender children, including one transgender girl.

“All of this hysteria, all of this debate, all of these hurt feelings are all to discriminate against four Utah children who just want to play sports with their friends,” Williams said. “It’s unspeakably cruel.”

Cox echoed Williams’ sentiments about creating a ban over four transgender students. In the letter addressed to legislative leaders, Cox cited a study about how 86% of transgender youth had reported suicidal ideation and how more than half had attempted suicide.

“Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That’s what all of this is about. Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day,” he wrote. “I want them to live. All the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly ... If a veto override occurs, I hope we can work to find ways to show these four kids that we love them and they have a place in our state.”