Utah Gov. Cox vetoes seven bills — tells Legislature ‘sometimes there are bills that could be phone calls’

The bills that fell victim to the veto pen were largely unnecessary, Gov Spencer Cox said. He wants the number of bills passed cut by roughly 25%.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 21, 2024. The Utah governor said he plans to veto "several" bills passed by the Legislature this year.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed seven bills passed in the recent session — most because he said the legislation was unnecessary — and encouraged legislative leaders to rein in the number of bills it passes.

Lawmakers pushed through a record of 591 pieces of legislation this past session, breaking the previous record of 575 set last year. The governor’s office said Cox ultimately signed 555 of those bills.

“While I suppose there is nothing inherently wrong with more bills, I truly believe it makes it more difficult to focus on the quality of the legislation,” Cox wrote in his veto letter to legislative leaders on Thursday. He said the sheer volume of legislation makes it difficult to give each bill the attention it deserves and suggested a number in the high 400s is a reasonable target.

“Just like there are meetings that could be emails, sometimes there are bills that could be phone calls,” he wrote.

Accordingly, most of the vetoes he issued fell into that category. The seven that fell victim to his veto pen were:

• HB152, which required the Division of Professional Licensing to create a model contract for residential construction and remodels, something he said the division would do without the legislation;

• HB239, requiring cybersecurity training for state employees, something Cox said already takes place annually;

• HB412, which requires state agencies to report on their compliance with legislative audit recommendations, something he said doesn’t require a new law;

• SB244, imposing criminal history guidelines for professional licensing, something Cox said the Division of Professional Licensing has already done;

• SB274, a bill that would have required agencies to report on administrative legal decisions, which the governor said can be done without a new law;

He vetoed two other bills because he said they had been so watered down that they were unnecessary. One was HB144, which dealt with who is responsible in left-turn car crashes, and SB190, which created a legislative study of how universities are developing property.

Cox allowed two bills to take effect without his signature because they had broad legislative support.

One sought to study the best way to use psilocybin in mental health treatments and the other expanded motion picture incentives — an area where Cox said he believes “there are better returns for taxpayer dollars.” He has previously allowed motion picture incentive expansions to take effect without his signature, as well.

The seven bills struck with the governor’s veto pen is the second-highest number of vetoes issued in at least the last quarter century. Former Gov. Mike Leavitt vetoed eight bills in 2002.

The Republican governor — who is up for reelection this year and faces primary challengers from his political right — said during his monthly PBS Utah news conference that “it’s very possible” that the Legislature will override some of his vetoes.

“That’s okay, too,” Cox said. “This really is part of the system: I get to veto and they get to override and I don’t have my feelings hurt when when they override, they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt when I veto, although they do often, which I understand because it’s a lot of work.”

To convene an override session, legislative leaders will take a survey of which — if any — bills have two-thirds of the members in both chambers supporting the override. If any rise to that level, the Legislature can call itself into an override session and vote to enact the legislation despite the governor’s opposition.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 21, 2024.

Senate President Stuart Adams said Thursday evening that appreciated Cox’s commitment to working with lawmakers this year and that the Legislature would be reviewing the vetoes.

“Vetoes are an important aspect of the checks and balances between the branches of government established by the Founding Fathers,” Adams said in a statement. “During this session, we worked with foresight to make decisions that will positively impact generations — ensuring we put Utahns first. In the next couple of weeks, we will review the veto bills, have discussions with lawmakers and then decide how to proceed.”

House Speaker Mike Schultz said in a statement Thursday that leaders “will work with our members and the Senate to determine if any vetoed bills warrant a veto override session.”

“I respect the policymaking process and appreciate the governor’s collaboration and commitment to working with us to tackle some of the most important and pressing issues facing our state,” Schultz said.

Cox did sign two bills that he had been urged to veto: one backed by rural lawmakers trying to keep a coal-burning power plant near Delta from closing down and the other to impose stringent new reporting requirements on the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office.

Cox said that the district attorney bill doesn’t take effect until July 2025, meaning there is an opportunity to revisit it before it kicks in.

But with big investments in Salt Lake City — in particular, the areas of homelessness and hopes of a professional hockey and baseball team — Cox said that, “There’s deep concern about what we’ve seen with some of the policies impacting homelessness” and crime in parts of the city and some people being released from jail prematurely. It’s fair, he said, to seek more information about how the office is run.