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Opinion: Gov. Cox hit the right notes in State of the State

Utah’s chief executive could have been stronger on COVID-19, but his speech set an important tone of seriousness at a time of unfounded conspiracies and harmful rhetoric

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Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his State of the State address in the Utah House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City.

Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his State of the State address in the Utah House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.

Leah Hogsten

Gov. Spencer Cox hit a lot of right notes in his State of the State address Thursday night. He successfully cast himself as a welcomed voice of reason regarding irrational hyperpartisanship, political incivility, lies about election fraud and anti-government rhetoric. 

He spoke forcefully about the need to fund education, the urgent matter of saving the Great Salt Lake and the wisdom of targeting tax cuts at the state’s most vulnerable. If national leaders strive to appear presidential, Cox came across as gubernatorial — a leader reasonable enough to keep the affairs of state above the bitter winds that now infect much of representative government.

If his speech had a weakness, however, it was on the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Yes, Cox led his talk with that subject, acknowledging it as “nearly all we’ve talked about” for two years. But his usual optimism sounded a bit off key, especially when he pointed to the state’s relatively low hospitalization rate but didn’t mention that Utah ranked third over the last week for the most new cases per 100,000 residents.

The state clearly is not doing enough in the way of prevention, and it’s costing people their health. This remains the most pressing issue for the state and the nation.

We wish Cox would have forcefully denounced the Legislature’s decision to overturn mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties, which was made official Friday by a vote in the House. Although it was done as a resolution over which he had no veto power, Cox’s objection would have been noteworthy. We wish he would have stood up for the principle of local governance, which lawmakers so blatantly set aside. 

The governor said “there has been and will undoubtedly continue to be disagreements on how best to respond to this ongoing pandemic.” But all expressed opinions are not equal, and the public health officials who issued the mandates have expertise that deserves respect.

Still, the overall effect of Cox’s speech was resoundingly positive. His broadsides on election conspiracists and anti-government sentiment struck with the precision of a smartbomb. By using the example of his own great-great-great grandfather whose home in Illinois was torched by mobs and who received no protection nor restitution from the government, he put present divisions, of all kinds, into perspective.

His ancestor, he said, “never gave up on the idea of America. He believed in the promise of what America could be.” 

Beyond these big-picture items that seem to encompass so much of public dialog these days, Cox chose to correctly emphasize many of the state’s biggest needs, from affordable housing to a dwindling water supply and the needs of education. 

The governor touted his plan to direct tax cuts at a sales tax credit for grocery purchases. While we prefer an outright removal of the state’s portion of sales tax from food, the emphasis on targeting the needs of the poor makes more sense than the Legislature’s desires for a general income tax cut.

And we were heartened by his proclaimed lack of “interest and patience” for legislation meant to fire broadsides in the culture wars.

State of the State speeches seldom move minds as lawmakers begin to tackle issues of the day. But this speech set a powerful tone of seriousness at a time when so much of public discourse is bogged down with things that are suggestive of dark conspiracies, mistrust or unproven accusations. For that, Utah’s governor should be thanked.