As the weather warms and more of the snowpack in Utah’s mountains melt, Gov. Spencer Cox is bracing for flooding, which includes giving state employees a day off of work to volunteer to help with the emergency response in their communities.
The order — announced at Cox’s monthly news conference Thursday — grants eight hours of administrative leave for employees of all executive branch agencies comes after a winter of above-average snowpack in the middle of a historic drought. And parts of the state — especially in Utah’s south — are already flooding.
“State employees can use work time to pitch in filling sandbags, and joining other flood responses in their county or an adjacent county,” Cox said. “We want an army of residents ready and I know we will have volunteers joining them from across the state as they’re called upon to do so.”
Cox urged Utahns to verify whether their home insurance includes flood coverage, and check online to see if they live in a flood zone.
Meanwhile, as he’s signing bills from the 2023 legislative session, Cox said Utah is also preparing to take advantage of the “great opportunity” the snowpack presents to raise the water level of the Great Salt Lake after it reached its lowest recorded point in November.
When asked whether the Utah Legislature “punted” in addressing the state’s water crisis after the unexpectedly high amount of precipitation, Cox said he disagreed, noting that some of the bills passed in the 2022 session — like agricultural water optimization — won’t be implemented until this spring.
“It takes time for these projects to take effect,” the governor said.
The morning after signing HB467 — a bill that will outlaw abortion clinics in Utah — Cox said the new law will “absolutely not” enact a de facto ban on abortion, as it remains legal up to 18 weeks in the state.
Building onto Utah’s abortion trigger law, which has been blocked since a few days after it went into effect last summer, the bill makes a number of changes to abortion policy. Among the changes are some that clarify the definition of abortion and when a doctor can provide one under the trigger ban’s exceptions — for rape, incest, when the life of the mother is at risk and for a fatal fetal abnormality.
“The trigger law that was passed several years ago would have enacted a de facto complete abortion ban, because there wasn’t clarity around rape, incest and the health and safety of the mother,” Cox said. “And so this bill clarifies that so that those abortions can continue.
“They will continue in a hospital setting, but there is nothing that would prevent those from continuing and the hospitals were involved in the drafting of that bill, and they were supportive of the bill as it passed.”
The CEO of the Utah Medical Association, Michelle McOmber, spoke in both of the committee hearings for the bill. She said the organization was “OK” with it because it appreciated that the sponsor, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, worked with OB-GYNs in adjusting definitions in the bill.
But she said the organization was concerned about how pushing abortions into hospitals might impact the cost of an abortion, and that the bill left in place a portion of the trigger law that makes performing an abortion in certain circumstances a second-degree felony.
When asked whether he feels Utahns will have adequate access to abortion care after the bill’s implementation, Cox said, “They’ll go to a hospital and get that care,” and that he doesn’t think the bill will present additional issues to people in rural areas who have limited access to health care.
While three of the four abortion clinics in the state are in the heavily populated Salt Lake County, one is in Cache County. Salt Lake County borders four counties the state’s Department of Health and Human Services has classified as rural, and Cache County borders one rural county and one frontier county — a definition for counties even more sparsely populated than rural areas.
Access to abortion medication through pharmacies may be further restricted in coming days, as a federal court considers whether to pull mifepristone, one of two pills taken for an abortion, off the market. And Walgreens has halted plans to sell the pill in Utah after Attorney General Sean Reyes signed a letter threatening legal action if the chain didn’t stop distributing the pill in the mail in states where that’s legal.
In response to Walgreen’s announcement that it wouldn’t offer the pill in Utah and 20 other states, California cut ties with the company.
When asked his thoughts on the court case and Walgreens’ decision, Cox said, “I don’t know that I have any thoughts on top of what I’ve already shared.”
Addressing failed bills that took on diversity, equity and inclusion measures, and whether such programs are important to preserve, Cox said, “There’s good diversity and inclusion, and there’s not good diversity and inclusion.”
“I think it is important that we work to make sure that everyone feels included, but we don’t have to exclude people to make that happen,” Cox said. “And that’s unfortunately, what happens with some of these DEI programs.”
The reason he signed a bill from Rep. Tim Jimenez, R-Tooele, is because he felt comfortable with the way the bill was changed. The bill sets boundaries for what curriculum can be used by teachers, especially when it comes to teaching about race and gender.
The state’s largest teachers union, the Utah Education Association, opposed the bill “because of concerns about how an administrator or parent may interpret what educators can or can’t say in a classroom.”
“Most Utahns, if they just read the language of that bill, it makes sense to them,” Cox said. “Just saying, you know, you can’t blame kids for things that happened many years ago.”
Bills under review
A bill that would require someone interested in playing sports or participating in an extracurricular activity at a private or public school to provide certain identifying documentation, potentially excluding children without citizenship documentation, will receive Cox’s signature, he said.
Concerns that it would exclude some children hadn’t been brought to his attention until after the bill passed, he said. Cox added that he has spoken with the bill’s sponsor and that if it has a negative impact, “we will call a special session to come in and change the bill.”
Another controversial bill that would allow year-round cougar hunting is under review by the governor, who said he hasn’t made a decision as to whether he’ll sign it.
“I’m less concerned than I was as I’ve gotten more information and looked at it,” Cox added.
Cox said that although there was a list of 35 to 40 proposed bills that he had planned on vetoing, there aren’t any that he’ll refuse to sign right now.
“All of them either died or didn’t pass, or were changed substantially,” he said.