Gov. Cox says he ‘will defend’ Utah Senate’s rejection of his Democratic nominee to Air Quality Board

At his monthly news conference, the governor also addressed Rocky Mountain Power’s announcement to move away from coal and potential legal challenges to social media bills.

Gov. Spencer Cox holds his monthly news conference at PBS Utah in the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 16, 2023.

Gov. Spencer Cox said his next pick for a seat on the Air Quality Board will likely come from Salt Lake County, after the governor withdrew his nomination of Democratic Salt Lake County Council Member Suzanne Harrison earlier this week.

The governor’s decision to abandon the nomination came after three of four Republican members on a Senate committee refused to advance her name for a vote by the full Senate and other senators said they would support that vote. Lawmakers’ opposition was seemingly motivated by stances Harrison took on environment-related bills while in the state House of Representatives.

“They’re doing their job, and I will defend the Senate’s ability not to approve my nominations,” Cox said of the vote during his monthly PBS Utah news conference Thursday. “I don’t want them to just be a rubber stamp of everything I do. I know most governors would like that, but I also don’t think that that’s healthy for our system of government.”

Cox told reporters he didn’t nominate Harrison because she’s a Democrat, but because he wants to make sure the Salt Lake Valley is represented on the board. The open seat previously belonged to Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, also a Democrat.

Although the governor said he hasn’t settled on a name for his next nomination, his search is focused in the same geographic area.

Cox also said he is “a little dubious” of an announcement by Rocky Mountain Power last month to accelerate plans to close two Utah coal plants a decade and replace part of the electricity generated after the 2032 closure with nuclear power.

“As much as I support nuclear, I’ve yet to see a nuclear project that has come in on time,” Cox said.

The governor said as the state moves toward that date, he wants to make sure energy remains “abundant” and “cheap,” and that the “we are taking care of the people who work in those power plants and who work in those coal mines.”

Advocates of nuclear energy have said making such a transition will keep energy affordable or even reduce the cost. But as Utah’s population booms, Rocky Mountain Power has had to back off some of its earlier estimates for how much of the energy load it can move to renewables.

Regulating teens

Cox has said he welcomes expected legal challenges against a pair of bills that will curb minors’ social media use and told reporters Thursday that bipartisan support for social media regulation could help fend off efforts to quash the bills.

One bill, SB152, requires social media companies to verify the age of all Utah users before they can access their platforms and to obtain consent from parents before a minor is able to open an account. Another, HB311, prohibits social media companies from using a “design or feature” to cause a minor to become addicted to the service.

While the bills were passed by a Legislature with a GOP supermajority and signed by a Republican governor, Cox said he’s “heard from” Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration and “they’re watching very closely what we’re trying to do in here in Utah.”

In his State of the Union address in February, Biden called on Congress to “hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit.”

If such a case makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court, the bench’s shift to the right wouldn’t have an impact on a decision, Cox surmised, saying, ”I do think just from ... a political philosophy that this fits well in both conservative and liberal camps. It’s one of those strange areas these days where there is some common ground.”

Utah’s social media regulation efforts have faced criticism for potentially violating young people’s First Amendment rights. Judge Memorial High School student Sidney Ramirez asked Cox at the news conference whether he’s considered how the bill might negatively impact minors, “seeing as how this will hinder their ability to use social media as a tool for learning and information and require minors to provide even more personal information.”

“Let me assure you that social media companies have all of your information, and that’s part of the problem,” Cox said in a seven-minute response. “At some point, we have to do something ... and I just can’t live with myself if we don’t try something.”

When asked about Biden’s position on another facet of regulation in young people’s lives — whether transgender girls should be able to play high school sports — Cox said “it’s an issue better left off to the states.”

Earlier this month, Biden announced a proposed rule change that would keep schools from “categorically” banning transgender athletes’ participation, but allow schools to make their own decision as to whether transgender students could get involved with sports if they think it would undermine competition or lead to sports-related injuries.

“We should be compassionate and understanding to our transgender students who are clearly struggling in lots of different ways,” Cox said. “I think that there are better ways to do that.”

Near the beginning of the legislative session, Cox signed a bill that banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth, and appointed two members to a commission that, among other things, will establish “a baseline range of physical characteristics for students participating in a specific gender-designated activity.”