Utah Gov. Spencer Cox touched on many themes familiar to all Western states in his annual State of the State address Thursday night.
Water, or the lack thereof, affordable housing, education funding and the need for tax cuts in rapidly expanding economic times are items familiar to the intermountain West and beyond. Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs and Idaho Gov. Brad Little spoke of similar things in their annual addresses, as well.
The difference, however, was that Cox spent a good portion of his talk focusing on the need for faith, especially as an antidote for fear, and that he directed his remarks to the state’s youngest residents.
Governors are important political figures in any state, but they can also set the tone for public discourse and put current problems in perspective. Cox did both in his speech. He was clear to say he wasn’t necessarily talking about faith “in the religious sense,” but he didn’t shy away from his own religious faith, either. Too often, modern political leaders do.
Cox noted he has been mocked for asking Utahns to unite in prayer and faith to end the drought. “But, as a man of faith, I make no excuses for my beliefs,” he said. “I believe there is real power in people of all different faiths and backgrounds uniting together and pleading for help from a higher authority than our own.”
He was also quick to thank God for the snow already received this water year, which began Oct. 1.
It’s refreshing to hear such things in the public sphere. Public acknowledgement of a higher power is one surefire antidote to the hubris, arrogance and incivility that infect much of our nation’s politics. It also turns politicians outward, humbles them and helps them to see the needs of their fellow humans.
The governor reiterated his call for $1 billion in tax cuts, and he reemphasized the need to find ways to save the Great Salt Lake from extinction — a problem that, while exacerbated by drought, extends beyond rainfall totals. He urged the state to tackle problems with social media and its impacts on mental health, and he emphasized family needs, hinting of a new program for foster parents.
His talk may have been most notable for what it didn’t include, however. In past years, Cox has warned lawmakers not to send him bills that are little more than shots in the culture war. Last year, he ended the legislative session by vetoing a bill that banned transgender girls from playing on female sports teams. Lawmakers subsequently overrode that veto.
Cox already has said he won’t veto a current bill that would outlaw gender altering surgeries and puberty blockers for minors.
Last year during the session he also expressed displeasure for a school choice bill, saying the state needed to increase teacher salaries first. Lawmakers credit this for influencing many to vote against the bill, which didn’t pass. This year, however, a similar bill includes raises for teachers. Critics say teacher raises should be considered separately, not held hostage to a controversial change in education policy. But lawmakers clearly heard the governor’s concerns.
Cox’s speech lauded teachers and asked lawmakers to make this the “year of the teacher.” But he never once mentioned school choice or the bill, HB215, which is rapidly advancing through the Legislature.
The state constitution limits Utah lawmakers’ annual session to 45 days. It goes by quickly, and yet it often comes packed with unexpected surprises. The governor has shown he isn’t reluctant to use the veto or to express himself on various proposals, and that is how it should be.
It may be easy for governors to signal optimism and faith during strong economic times, but Utah has no shortage of difficult challenges ahead. Growth and prosperity bring unique difficulties, especially when a state occupies a fragile ecosystem.
So do national problems, including economic uncertainty and problems beyond the state’s control.
Amid all this, the governor’s unflagging faith in the future was the right tone for a year when so much is uncertain.
Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall will address issues vital to the city in her state of the city address Tuesday night, and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson will deliver her state of the county address Monday.