Utah has a new state flag after Gov. Cox signs banner bill — for now

Gov. Spencer Cox has also asked lawmakers to amend the law to ensure Utah’s “historic state flag,” when displayed with the new flag, is flown higher than the modern banner.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Utah Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, unfurls the state's new flag during a Senate media availability on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Salt Lake City. Opponents of the new state flag have filed a referendum in an attempt to bypass the Legislature and let voters decide on the design.

On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Spencer Cox signed the bill authorizing a new state flag for Utah. It took five years for the flag redesign to get to this point, but a looming public referendum threatens to derail the change.

The revamp of Utah’s flag began in 2019 and reached a crescendo last summer when officials selected the new pennant from more than 5,700 proposals submitted by the public.

The proposed new flag was a surprisingly controversial issue during the just-completed 2023 legislative session, as a relentless lobbying effort by opponents prompted lawmakers to make several changes before the bill won final approval on the second-to-last day of the session.

“I am grateful for the tens of thousands of Utahns who participated in designing and selecting this new flag. Just as we have much to be grateful for from our ancestors, I hope that today’s Utahns will be worthy of the mantle that has been placed upon them to preserve and build Utah’s legacy for our children, grandchildren, and generations to come,” Cox said in a news release Tuesday afternoon.

Instead of just one flag, the bill gives Utah four of them. The final version of the bill signed by Cox on Tuesday makes the modern version the “official” flag of the state while designating three variations of the current flag as “historical.” Any of the four flags can be flown anytime for any reason.

In a further concession to opponents of the new flag, Cox signed an executive order on Tuesday requiring the display of the historic version of the flag on top of the Utah Capitol. When the bill goes into effect in May, both the new and historic will fly above the Capitol on separate flag poles. Cox’s order also requires all state agencies to fly the historic version on holidays.

Additionally, Cox is asking for an amendment to the bill that will require the historic flag to be flown above the modern version whenever the two are displayed together.

Sen. Dan McCay, the original sponsor of the flag change legislation, says he already is making plans to make the changes requested by the governor.

“I’m grateful the Governor found a way to ensure that our current flag will maintain an important role in the future of Utah,” McCay said in a text message. “I’m excited about all the effort Utahns took to participate in the design of the new flag and hope that it serves the Beehive state for many years to come.”

Including the current flag as a historical option was not enough for opponents of the swap, who launched a referendum effort earlier this month seeking to put the change up for a public vote. They need to collect 134,298 signatures from registered Utah voters by April 12. That total must include eight percent of active voters in 15 of Utah’s 29 Senate districts. If they are successful, the new flag will be on hold until voters have their say in either 2023 or 2024.

Chad Saunders, one of the organizers of the referendum effort, says they are making good progress toward that goal.

“We have had several businesses and community events work with us to set up sign-up stations,” Saunders said. “I dropped off 200 signature packets on Friday in St. George, and they already need 300 more. That’s a good sign that people are motivated.”

Saunders added they secured a permit to gather signatures at Salt Lake International Airport, which he says has paid dividends.

With just over three weeks to go until the deadline, it appears those signature-gathering efforts still have a long way to go. As of Tuesday morning, referendum organizers had submitted just 137 signatures for verification.

If organizers can reach the signature threshold for inclusion on the ballot, that won’t be the end of the road. Voters who sign the petition can ask to have their name removed for up to 45 days after it is posted online. Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson will make a final determination if the referendum has qualified for the ballot sometime in early June.