SALT LAKE CITY — Gov.-elect Spencer Cox is looking to get a head start on his campaign promises to bring Utah’s economy back from the COVID-19 pandemic — and signal his intent to have a good working relationship with the Utah Legislature.
Cox joined legislators on Tuesday to throw his support behind an effort to better coordinate Utah’s economic development in both rural and urban communities across state agencies. The proposal is to create a new statewide commission to act as a lead body to coordinate economic development initiatives across all government agencies.
Legislators on the Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee were energized by the proposed legislation, complaining about a fracturing between the legislative and executive branches and expressing hope that Cox’s administration would lead to better collaboration between the Legislature and the governor’s office.
“The Cox-Henderson administration believes in the importance of the Legislature and working very closely with each of you, that you will likely see more of us, especially on these big and important policy initiatives that we have been working on together and will work on together to solve the problems that face Utahns for the next generation,” Cox told committee members.
“It will require an executive branch and legislative branch that work hand in hand.”
While the Governor’s Office of Economic Development will “continue to play a key role in the overall strategy, no one agency should be solely responsible” for economic development strategies in Utah, Cox said.
Rep. Tim Hawkes, chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Senate Assistant Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, told lawmakers on the interim committee they planned to sponsor legislation to create the new statewide commission. Cox joined Hawkes, R-Centerville, and Millner to give a high-level overview of the bill. The committee did not discuss specifics of the bill, which is still being drafted.
Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, said he “couldn’t be more excited for this commission” and the work ahead, applauding Cox for participating in the virtual meeting Tuesday as a member of the executive branch. But he had a concern.
“I don’t want to pour cold water on it. ... A lot of this sounds the same,” Owens said, noting that the conversation to improve coordination and strategic economic development both on and off the Wasatch Front has been a decadeslong conversation.
Owens said rural Utah counties have continued to struggle to build meaningful jobs, but he was “encouraged” by the effort to bring more leadership to the effort.
Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said he was “thrilled to see this starting to move forward.” He said he wanted to run legislation for the last four years to do “exactly what this is” but he “didn’t ever run the bill because I was worried about, you know, Gov. Gary Herbert taking offense.”
Anderegg said too many initiatives have fallen to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the Legislature hasn’t increased the office’s resources to accomplish all those initiatives.
“You absolutely are right, we have to have better coordination, especially when it comes around to the economic development efforts aligned with (transportation) infrastructure,” Anderegg said, noting that his area near the Point of the Mountain was “told point blank they would have TRAX by 2018” but “everybody backpedaled,” and that TRAX extension obviously never happened.
Now, with the pandemic, Anderegg said, the “blessing is that remote working is here to stay” and that can help grow more jobs in rural Utah.
“This needs to be more of a team Utah approach versus executive branch versus legislative branch,” Anderegg said.
Cox did not address any verbal jabs legislators took at his current boss, Herbert, who didn’t run for reelection but backed Cox to succeed him. But Cox did thank legislators for “allowing me the opportunity to participate in your domain.”
“We can’t wait to work even closer together on this and many other issues,” Cox said.