A slim majority of Utahns approve of the Legislature’s performance but are split over whether lawmakers or the governor has the most influence in the state, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

And while the GOP-controlled Legislature got a thumbs-up from 53% of voters polled, just 9% felt strongly. Of the one-third who disapprove of the Legislature’s performance, 16% felt strongly. Another 14% said they didn’t know how they felt.

Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the numbers reflect more on how voters feel about the Legislature’s overall performance than about the actions taken on any specific issues.

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“These questions are, of course, run through a political filter as well. Your view of the Legislature largely depends on your political lens,” Perry said, noting 66% of Republicans, the state’s majority party, like what lawmakers did but 66% of Democrats did not.

Gaining the approval of more than half of all Utahns “means the Legislature probably has found a spot that they’re comfortable with, a majority of voters are comfortable with,” he said.

The same poll also found that Utahns are split over whether legislative leaders or Gov. Spencer Cox have the most influence on the state, with 34% choosing legislative leaders as dominant, and another 34%, the governor.

Just 15% said it’s city and county officeholders who wield the greatest influence in Utah. Another 8% said it was some other elected leader or group of leaders they did not identify, and 9% weren’t sure.

The results on that question are similar to what voters said a year ago about who holds sway in the state. Then, the number of Utahns who saw the governor on top trailed those who said it was lawmakers by a single percentage point, 33% to 32%.

Perry said the influence numbers are an interesting development.

“What we’re seeing right now is a continuing trend that Utahns view that government powers are balanced,” he said. “Historically, there have been times when you’ve seen outsized influence from one of these two.”

Now, Utahns consider the governor and legislative leaders to be “evenly matched,” Perry said.

“It appears to be maybe a sign of how the governor and the Legislature is getting along. But also it’s just interesting to show that Utahns are viewing them equal in power and influence. I think that’s a position that I don’t know either party would be upset about,” he said.

The new poll was conducted March 14-22 of 801 registered Utah voters by Dan Jones & Associates, after the 45-day general session of the 2023 Legislature ended on March 3. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.

When Utahns were asked shortly after the start of the legislative session in January about their level of approval for the Legislature’s performance, they were slightly less supportive, with 51% saying they approve while 38% disapproved and 10% didn’t know.

Lawmakers tackled a number of high-profile issues last session, including new restrictions on abortions and medical interventions for transgender youth in the state, as well as the creation of a school choice scholarship system, all signed into law by Cox.

In fact, the Republican governor issued no vetoes this session. In 2022, Cox made national headlines by vetoing a bill barring transgender students from playing girls sports but his action was overridden by lawmakers.

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The governor held a special bill signing ceremony with legislative leaders for a $400 million tax cut package that included a provision giving pregnant women a double tax exemption for their children in the year they’re born.

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Much of what lawmakers did last session satisfied Sharla Birschbach, including the tax cut. She said she also appreciated lawmakers further limiting abortions and agreed transgender youth should wait for medical interventions.

But the 56-year-old who assembles circuit boards in her Saratoga Springs home didn’t like that the Legislature voted for a new state flag, something she said really isn’t needed. Overall, though, Birschbach said she feels her views were represented at the Legislature.

“I’m pretty conservative ... I’m not really into politics that much, so I don’t like to get involved in it,” she said. While Birschbach said she believes her perspective is still shared by a majority of Utahns, she said that may be changing.

“I feel like there’s a lot of people moving in from other states,” she said, bringing a less conservative outlook to Utah. “I think they tend to influence that a little bit.”

Paul Sanchez, 43, a Democratic financial consultant from South Salt Lake who changed his party affiliation to Republican back in 2020 to vote in the GOP gubernatorial primary, said he somewhat disapproves of the Legislature’s performance.

“I had a real issue with the transgender bills that they passed and I still don’t think they’re doing enough for the Great Salt Lake,” Sanchez said, adding he would have liked to have seen more money spent on education in lieu of a tax cut.

He said decisions about medical interventions for transgender youth, often referred to as gender-affirming care, should be up to them and their parents, not lawmakers, because “it just seems like Republicans talk about less government involvement until they have issues” with something.

Last year’s override of Cox’s veto on transgender athlete participation in girls sports is proof, Sanchez said, “you’re going to have to say the Legislature for sure has the most power in how the state is run.”

That’s something he said he’s not really comfortable with given his politics, “but they have been elected. They have an overwhelming majority. I don’t like it, but that’s the reality.”

Sanchez also said having the approval of just 50% of Utahns is “nothing to write home about” given that Republicans are the dominant political party in Utah and the GOP holds a supermajority in the Legislature.

Legislative leaders, governor react to poll results

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he is “really happy” with the Legislature’s showing in the poll.

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“It’s really hard when you ask general questions about general organizations. I think specifically, each legislator has a higher approval rating with their constituency because they put a name and a face to the situation,” Adams said.

After dealing with a record number of bills last session, the Senate leader said “to have a positive approval rating overall, I think, speaks very highly of what we’ve done. ... We deal with so many issues, that somebody’s got to disagree with us.”

When it comes to the equal split over whether the governor or legislative leaders have the most influence in Utah, Adams said the Legislature can seem “a little more nebulous” to the public.

“Our Founding Fathers put together what I think is a balanced process. There’s an executive branch and a legislative branch and I think we work very closely together,” he said, adding that unlike last year, Cox did not veto any legislation.

“I think it shows a collaborative process and I think it shows we’re working well together,” Adams said. “We’re obviously doing positive things because I think the public’s recognizing the influence we have in their lives.”

That influence, he said, “has been significant and I think it’s significantly positive.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, also was pleased with the poll results.

“In a time of political disagreement, contention and divisiveness, it is promising to see a majority of Utahns approve of those the elected to represent them. This is one among many examples of the benefits of a part time, citizen legislature,” Wilson said in a statement.

Utah lawmakers “craft policies that impact our families, neighbors and communities, then go back to our lives and live with the consequences,” with the goal of “ensuring Utah remains the best place to live, work, learn and play,” Wilson said.

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“The rest of the nation could learn a thing or two from us,” the speaker said.

The governor offered praise to other leaders in Utah, in a statement from his spokeswoman, Jennifer Napier-Pearce.

“Gov. Cox is grateful for both the dedication and hard work of our state legislators and local leaders,” she said. “Each brings ideas, energy and a commitment to improving the lives of Utahns and he appreciates their support as we work together to find solutions.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated 54% of Utahns polled approve of the Legislature’s job performance. The correct number is 53%.

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