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Utah governor warns of ‘foundational cracks’ state faces, pushes for focus on education

Cox also tells lawmakers he plans to wield veto pen in COVID-19-shortened State of the State speech

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Gov. Spencer Cox gets ready to give his first State of the State address in the Utah House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox gave his first State of the State address on Thursday in front of Utah legislators — a speech that Cox called the “shortest State of the State speech in state history” to avoid COVID-19 spread.

The governor limited the speech to roughly 15 minutes for the safety of masked lawmakers sitting in the House chamber, noting in his monthly news conference Thursday morning that the more time spent together in enclosed areas, the higher the chance of COVID-19 transmission, mask or no mask.

Some lawmakers listened remotely, so the House chamber was nowhere near as crowded as it has been for past years’ speeches, when both senators and representatives packed into the same chamber.

“But of course, these modifications pale in comparison to the incredible changes and innovations and sacrifices made by the people of Utah over the past year,” Cox said. “More than 1,500 Utahns are not with us tonight because of this insidious disease.”

‘Foundational cracks’

Cox drew comparisons between the crisis facing Utah amid the COVID-19 pandemic and when the Salt Lake Temple construction first began in 1853 and the “unthinkable” happened.

“After 10 years of painstaking labor, workers noticed that the foundation stones were cracking,” Cox said. “I can’t even begin to imagine how devastated those settlers felt. I’m sure they desperately wanted to just move forward. Surely there had to be another way. But they knew that such an important building for them would never stand the test of time if the foundation was not sure.”

So, with “grit” and “determination,” Cox said, they made the “gut-wrenching decision to start over. It took another 30 years to complete, but 130 years later that building still stands as a tribute to their sacrifice and tenacity.”

“You see, here in Utah, we build things to last. And when we learn a better way to do the job, we start back over and we build it again,” he said. “Tonight, we find ourselves in a similar period of building and rebuilding. We meet in an extraordinary place in extraordinary times. So much has changed because of this pandemic.”

Cox thanked health care workers, first responders, business workers, senior citizens and children, noting “truly every single citizen of this state has made enormous sacrifices to save lives and keep our economy open.”

“Tonight we salute you and say to all Utahns that help is on the way,” Cox said. “Vaccines are being administered as we speak. The changes we have made to vaccine distribution are working and the end to this pandemic is in sight.”

Teachers

Cox gave a special shoutout to Utah teachers, saying that “never in the history of our state have we felt your influence or needed you more than right now. You have pivoted on a dime and figured out ways to do what seemed impossible.”

Cox spoke specifically of one “extremely high-risk teacher” who works in a school where officials “actually figured out a way to repurpose a classroom that had a room within a room, one with glass windows, to keep the teacher safe.

“Every day that teacher enters his room and stands behind those glass windows with a microphone and speakers so he can see his students — including my son — through that glass and teach them in person,” Cox said, “while his own children have to take classes online at home to protect their dad.”

“That teacher is my brother,” Cox said. “And he represents every one of our teachers who has worked themselves to the bone to keep our kids safe and keep them from falling behind.”

Cox said teachers not only “deserve our respect,” but they also “deserve a raise.” He credited legislators for supporting a plan to use $112 million for $1,500 teacher bonuses, as well as a 6% weighted pupil unit increase for education funding.

“While I just referred to these investments as ‘historic,’ I’m looking forward to them becoming routine,” Cox said.

Cox said it would be “easy” and “tempting” to talk about “all the good things happening in Utah” like the state’s economic standing compared to other states in the nation.

“But I don’t believe the people of Utah elected us to pat ourselves on the back,” Cox said. “A wise person once said that we should go into government ‘to do,’ not ‘to be.’ And this pandemic has shown us that, after celebrating 125 years of statehood, there may be some cracks in our foundation that need attention.”

The ‘key’ to inequities

Cox said he’s concerned that a “high-quality education” is not happening in “every corner of our state,” calling again for legislators to tackle “tough choices” around equalizing education funding so taxpayers and students receive quality education regardless of their ZIP codes — a call to action already included in his proposed budget.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I truly believe that this concept of educational equity is at the heart of so much of the pain and division in our country right now,” Cox said. “A high-quality education can change everything.”

He said it’s “the key to unlocking intergenerational poverty. It’s the key to disrupting the criminal justice pipeline. It’s the key to unlocking the American dream. And it’s the right thing to do.”

“But it’s hard,” he added. “It means replacing some of those foundation stones that are cracking. It means changing the way we fund schools. It means challenging some of our long-held assumptions and setting aside what may be good for your own individual school and district to instead support the best interests of the entire state. Those are tough choices.”

Cox then addressed the “critical conversations around race and injustice” amid last year’s summer of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

“And if I can be so bold, putting up a sign or joining a rally isn’t enough,” Cox said. “The best way we can bring to life the American promise — of liberty and justice for all — is to make sure that every single child, brown or Black, rural or urban, has the same opportunity as every other child.”

In Utah, Cox said, it shouldn’t matter “what side of I-15 you were born on.” Every child “deserves a great education from a high-quality, well-compensated teacher. I ask you to join me in this effort.”

Cox then gave a nod to the state’s “unprecedented” growth rate, and all the challenges that have come with it, calling air quality, transportation, water, housing “all the types of foundational cracks that could derail our success and the opportunities for future generations.”

He credited his predecessor and former boss, Gov. Gary Herbert, and the “past actions of many in this room” for laying the groundwork so that this legislative session presents a chance to cut taxes and “provide historic investments for infrastructure.”

“By providing an $80 million tax cut targeted at senior citizens and Utah families, we can improve the quality of life for scores of Utahns, while simultaneously investing significant new funding for transportation, water, recreation and broadband infrastructure that will benefit every Utahn on and off the Wasatch Front for generations to come,” Cox said.

Those investments, Cox said, “will finally make it possible to stop exporting our kids to other places: from rural Utah because we lack jobs, and from the Wasatch Front because they can’t afford to live here.”

‘We must always be friends’

The last “foundational crack” that Cox addressed was “that of contempt, tribalism and discord that has rocked our nation over the past few weeks.”

He reminded lawmakers of the oath of office he and they have taken, “to uphold the Constitution of the United States.” Like he did in his inauguration speech, Cox referred to comments from former federal Judge Thomas Griffith, who urged elected officials to set examples of unity and strive for mutual respect and “civic charity” in public discourse.

But that doesn’t mean he’ll take a soft approach, Cox warned lawmakers, adding that he’ll likely veto more bills than Herbert did.

“That, of course, does not mean that we should never disagree,” Cox said. “I’m going to veto some of your bills. Probably more than my predecessors. Please don’t take it personally.”

Cox added: “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. A gloriously messy and inspired process. But there must be no room for contempt or hate. We are friends. We must always be friends.”

To conclude his speech, Cox told a story of a group of Utah’s pioneer settlers who were on their way to the state when they traversed a rugged patch of land and their wagon got stuck in a sandbar.

“Undaunted, a faithful member of the group asked if they should pray,” Cox said, “To which (Brigham Young) replied, ‘Pray? We prayed this morning. Let’s push.’”

“Ladies and gentlemen, now is our time to be bold in tackling the tough issues,” Cox said. “Now is our time to be fearless in examining our flaws. Now is our time to reject hate and make opportunity available to all Utahns. Now is our time to push.”

Legislators gave Cox a standing ovation when he finished. Cox and his wife, Abby Cox, gave legislative leaders fist bumps on their way out of the chamber.

Legislative response

Senate President Stuart Adams in an interview called Cox’s address a “great speech,” and said he was “thrilled” to hear the desire for collaboration. As for Cox’s promise to veto some bills, Adams called that “understandable.”

“I know he knows that we may override more than a couple of his,” Adams said. “We do have a great relationship, but I think that relationship that we’ve built not only is for the governor but for the majority and minority parties. We do have I think a unique relationship in Utah that probably isn’t shared anywhere else in the United States.”

When asked if he was concerned about Cox’s to veto more bills than his predecessors, Adams said “Oh, heavens no. That’s part of the process. Don’t you love it?”

Adams said Cox so far has been “extremely communicative” and there’s been an “open and transparent dialogue” since he’s become governor. 

“And you see the results. We’ve seen an increase in COVID testing, we’ve seen a shift to actually give vaccines to those who are over 70 ... we’ve seen lots of shifts that he’s been receptive to,” Adams said.

In a prepared statement, Adams noted he also backed Cox’s commitment to education and hinted again at efforts expected this session to “balance” legislative and executive powers.

“The Legislature looks forward to having the difficult conversations needed for our state to progress,” Adams said. “Policy should not be created by the executive branch or judges but should be a deliberative process reserved for a larger, more diverse group of elected officials. The Senate remains committed to working through the process to find the best outcomes for Utahns.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, in an interview Thursday night said lawmakers are “grateful” for Cox being “someone who follows through on his commandments.” On Cox’s remarks about vetoes, Wilson said they’re part of the process.

“There have been times in my legislative career, when a veto or even a threat of a veto, brings other voices into the conversation and you end up with a better outcome,” Wilson said.

Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, joked that what Cox said about vetoing bills “is fine as long as it’s none of my bills.”

On a more serious note, Maloy said Cox has “done a great job of bringing the Legislature together with a vision that he’s setting as an executive. And it’s not just his vision alone, he’s really incorporated a lot of the vision that we’ve had as legislators.”

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he’s ready to work with the new governor in a prerecorded video message in response to the speech.

“We are eager to work with Gov. Cox’s new administration to help Utah families recover from this pandemic and get moving again,” he said. “And, as Democrats, we are glad to see Utah’s executive leadership coming around to our point of view and proposing policies and actions that Democrats have long been fighting for. Things like better funding for education, investing in public infrastructure like our state parks and public transit and paid parental leave.”

Senate Minority Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said the “violent incursion” at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was “tragic, unsettling, and deeply disturbing.” She said Democrats “fervently reject the indefensible objections to this country’s most foundational elements and processes.”

Too many elected officials nationwide have “doubled down on fanning the flames of division, and it must stop,” she added.

King said “despite perceived differences among our different political parties, or racial and ethnic groups, we all share the same goals — to pursue happy and meaningful lives.”

“Utahns are fundamentally welcoming and inclusive,” King said. “Our state is ready to innovate and invest in its future so that all Utahns have an opportunity to thrive. Let’s go.”

Contributing: Ashley Imlay, Hannah Petersen