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Governor gives himself an ‘Incomplete’ grade for 2021. Here’s how Robert Gehrke scored Cox’s freshman year

A look back at Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s first year in office sets the stage for the goals that should lie ahead.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Governor Spencer Cox speaks during The PBS Utah Governor's Monthly News Conference, Dec. 16, 2021 at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City.

When Gov. Spencer Cox was asked recently to grade his first year in office, he went with the politically easy answer, and perhaps not the entirely wrong one: Incomplete.

It’s a fair point. So much of 2021 came down to managing one crisis after another — drought, fires and the continuing pandemic — which derailed and overshadowed the rookie governor’s year, even after the Legislature stripped most of his ability to respond with anything more than a series of pep talks.

“If you go back and look at June and July, heading into August, things were really starting to move and we were starting to execute” on the administration’s agenda, Cox told me last week. “Then the delta wave hit and it felt like everything had to be put on the back burner again.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

But an “incomplete” is too easy. After all, the year is complete. So I decided to look back at Cox’s freshman year and assign a grade in a few key areas, as well as measures he should be judged on in the year ahead. Here is what I came up with.

Water and drought: B

Utah has suffered under a drought for more than two decades, but it reached a crisis in 2020. While the tools the governor had were limited, Cox did issue executive orders banning fireworks on state lands and reduced watering at state buildings.

At least as important though, was how the governor used his platform to drive home the need for conservation — and it seems to have worked. Cox cites a 9% reduction in water consumption as proof that we can change our behavior.

The real test will come in 2022. Cox has proposed spending $500 million on water conservation and improvement projects, including $50 million to restore the disappearing Great Salt Lake. He will need to push for more efficient farming, phasing out our green lawns and changing how Utahns pay for water, so the cost actual reflects the value of the scarce resource.

And ultimately, the state has to get serious about addressing the underlying cause — climate change — which is an issue Utah leaders have still tip-toed around.

Pandemic response: C

Early on, Utah’s vaccine rollout was smooth and effective. Cases were falling and life was getting somewhere near normal again.

Then the Legislature stripped the governor of most of his emergency powers.

Instead of using his veto power to try to stave off the power grab, he negotiated for some concessions and signed away his authority. When the delta surge hit, there was little he could do aside from plead with people to get vaccinated and wear masks.

It’s hard to predict what Covid will do in 2022. Hopefully the omicron wave will be short, we will be spared new variants and life will return to normal. But if waves persist, the governor will be powerless to respond.

Bully pulpit: A-

One of the most important roles for a governor is to set the agenda and articulate a state’s values. Cox has done that — whether its condemning the Jan. 6 insurrection, pushing back against legislation targeting transgender kids or denouncing racist acts arising in Utah schools.

That role will be even more important in 2022. On social media, Cox seems genuine and speaks from the heart. The state needs that voice and it needs that voice to push back against the worst tendencies in his own party — like Republican pushes to ban diversity in schools, undermine our elections or target LGBTQ youth.

Even better, he could back up the important words with concrete actions.

Balancing power: B

In a state dominated by one party, it’s important that the governor act as a check on the legislative branch. Cox’s record in that regard is mixed.

In his first State of The State speech, Cox told lawmakers he was willing to use his veto pen.

“I’m going to veto some of your bills. Probably more than my predecessors. Please don’t take it personally,” he said. “You are going to override some of those vetoes. I promise not to take that personally. It doesn’t mean that I’m bad or you’re weak. It is simply part of a process.”

He did veto four bills, including one sponsored by his brother-in-law, Sen. Mike McKell, but the other three were not significant.

And he let other legislations become law, including the loss of pandemic response powers and approving redistricting maps the Legislature passed, which ignoring the voter-approved independent commission. He gets credit, however, for threatening to veto the bill targeting transgender athletes.

Cox is popular in Utah and in the year ahead he should use that political capital to be more assertive and not let the Legislature push him around.

Overall grade: B

I might be harder on the governor were it not for the challenges he had to face with a new administration.

What does he need to deliver on in the coming year? I think he summed it up well when I asked what he would consider a successful 2022.

“The big hope is we’ll have significant legislative change in water conservation measures, [continue to increase] education funding significantly, especially to Title I schools and at-risk students,” Cox said. “The third is that we’ll continue what we started, and that is a major change in the way we do economic development in this state, focusing more on people and less on incentives for every job. And I guess fourth would be continuing to see progress in rural Utah, in improving economies in rural [areas and] opportunities for every Utahn.”

It’s a good to-do list. Let’s hope the administration has some breathing room so it can deliver.

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