Utah Gov. Spencer Cox implores lawmakers to ‘build more and tear down less’ in State of the State address

In his remarks to the Legislature, the governor left out discussion of school vouchers and highlighted budget proposals “supporting life.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his State of the State address at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. At rear are EmmaKate and Abby Cox, and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox made sure Utahns know where he aligns with — and diverges from — the Legislature’s 2023 priorities in his third State of the State address, delivered Thursday night.

The speech, he said, was directed at “the youth of our great state,” after noting he asked lawmakers to invite their children, grandchildren and other young family members to sit on the House floor with them. But he had a few words of advice for legislators, too.

“To anyone who believes that the next generation in Utah will be worse off than their parents, my message is simple,” Cox said. “Not now, not on our watch.”

The governor outlined his goals to increase education funding and teacher pay, but did not mention school vouchers. Republican lawmakers have made a raise for teachers contingent on passing school choice legislation.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his State of the State address at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

The school vouchers bill has earned wide support from conservative political groups, and ire from the state’s largest teachers union, the Utah Education Association.

“I worry that our teachers haven’t felt that love from Utah’s silent majority quite like they should,” Cox said, seemingly calling on more Utahns to get involved in the issue.

Democrats’ response to the speech, delivered by Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla and House Minority Leader Angela Romero, said the party will continue to oppose school vouchers and “other proposals that undermine and erode our public education system.”

Cox also took time to discuss his priorities on other matters affecting the quality of life outlook for young people in the state, like housing, water and social media.

One of his aims this session, he said, is to increase the supply and reduce the cost of housing.

After having referenced faith throughout his speech, Cox recalled his call to Utahns to pray for rain in the midst of a historic drought — a request met with criticism for a lack of policy action.

“I believe that God can fill the lake,” Cox said. “But if not, then we must.”

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The Legislature approved hundreds of millions in water conservation spending last year, and Cox is asking them to do it again. He is also proposing, he added, policy changes to reduce per capita use of water.

Cox announced during his remarks that he is working on legislation to further regulate social media companies’ data collection in the state, and launching a plan to widen Utah’s foster care system.

He continued, highlighting portions of his budget that would expand Medicaid for pregnant women and offer tax credits for unborn children — an apparent reaction to an abortion ban currently being challenged in front of the Utah Supreme Court. The Legislature is considering several other bills this session that would impact abortion access.

“If Utah truly believes in supporting life, we must always show our commitment with more than words,” Cox said.

(Jeffrey D. Allred | Pool) Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his 2023 State of the State address to the Utah State Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

Cox also touted his proposed $1 billion in tax relief — a goal in line with GOP lawmakers. Earlier this week, Senate President Stuart Adams called 2023 “the year of the tax cut” for the third year in a row.

“Though at times the task may seem daunting, we have the privilege and opportunity to tackle the biggest problems of our lifetime this session,” Adams said in his reaction to the speech.

Addressing lawmakers, Cox said that “sometimes the best bill is one that doesn’t pass at all.”

The governor made headlines in 2022 when he vetoed a bill that prohibited transgender girls from participating in female sports. The Legislature later overrode the veto, and the law is currently held up in court.

Lawmakers are debating multiple bills that would affect transgender youth this session, including one that would prohibit gender-affirming health care for minors. Cox has not taken a public stance on those bills.

“Legislative friends, remember that our time in these positions is often brief. Rather than spreading fear, let’s build more and tear down less,” Cox said toward the end of the speech.