Though he admits to sounding “sanctimonious,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox warned lawmakers that if they continue rushing bills through with little input, they will lose the public’s trust — and face vetoes.

That’s according to a letter obtained by the Deseret News that the Republican governor sent to lawmakers on March 23, the deadline for the governor to sign bills into law.

After not issuing a single veto this session, Cox both congratulates the GOP-controlled legislature for their work while warning them that substituting major issues into bills at the last minute will damage their reputation.

“Have you ever wondered why we have committee hearings? They aren’t mandated by the Constitution. Surely it would be much easier and more efficient to get bills passed if we didn’t have to wade through the slog of people coming and testifying,” Cox writes, in what he calls a “non-veto letter.”

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Sometimes the fate of the bill is already decided — lawmakers often know how they’ll vote regardless of the arguments presented. So why waste the time of politicians and constituents?

The answer, Cox says, is trust.

“Even if it’s the right thing to do, people need an opportunity to speak against it and at least try to convince us that we are wrong,” he writes, before pointing to what he says is a troubling trend in the Legislature during his tenure as governor.

“I am becoming more concerned about major issues that are being substituted into existing bills late in the process with no chance for public input. This happened on the last night of the session last year and a couple more times this session,” Cox writes.

The governor’s office declined to comment for this story.

Though his letter doesn’t name any bills in particular, Cox could be referring in part to the eleventh-hour substitution made by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, on the last day of the 2022 general session. At about 8:30 p.m., McCay introduced a new version of HB11 that sought to ban transgender girls from participating in high school sports. Both the House and Senate passed the bill.

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Cox held a press conference after, telling reporters he would veto it immediately. “I was as stunned as most members of the Senate were,” Cox said in 2022. “Some of the worst decisions get made at the last minute.” After the veto, the Legislature convened during a special session to override it.

This year, HB469 had a similar path through the Legislature. A hunting and wildlife related bill that was initially intended to set aside money to preserve land for animal habitats, and impose restrictions on air-powered rifles and trail cameras, it was transformed in the final days of the session by Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton.

Sandall added a provision that allows licensed hunters to shoot or trap mountain lions year-round without obtaining a tag, blowing up the state’s prior seasonal restrictions. Cox later signed the law, to the chagrin of wildlife activists.

“While I often agree with these substitutes, I worry about the erosion of trust that is occurring,” Cox told lawmakers in the March letter. “Taken alone, they are probably not a big deal. However, when added together over time, these actions can have devastating consequences and further divide us.”

As he closes out the four-page letter, Cox gives one last warning to lawmakers, suggesting that some of the tactics used during the last two sessions will see increased scrutiny.

“Please know that next year I will be paying close attention to these bigger, stand-alone issues that don’t receive a public hearing and will be much more likely to veto and call for a special session, even if it’s not in my own interest to do so,” he writes.

Lawmakers respond

Cox’s letter found support in at least one lawmaker.

“I definitely feel like things were rushed through,” said House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, citing the bill pairing teacher raises with school choice scholarships, and the “negative legislation, I felt, geared toward transgender youth.”

“Some of these bills just went quickly,” she said. “We as the Legislature, we’re only there for 45 days, so things do go by quickly. But I think when you’re dealing with complicated issues that are very complex, it’s important you get feedback from all Utahns.”

She said the governor “too quickly” signed both the bill tying together teacher raises and school choice scholarships, and the bill barring medical interventions for transgender youth that passed in the early days of the session.

“For the governor, he felt like that was policy decisions he had to sign off on right away. I wouldn’t agree with him,” the minority leader said. But asked if it was fair for Cox to criticize lawmakers’ actions, she said she understands where he’s coming from. 

“So I share some of the governor’s concerns, but at the same time, we only meet for a 45-day session so things go fast,” the minority leader said. She said she agreed with the governor that shortcuts in the process erode the public’s trust.

“It does. And he also participated in eroding that trust. We all did. What I always tell people is if they don’t like who’s representing them, including myself, that it’s time for them to take that to the ballot box,” Romero said.

When reached for comment on the letter, and whether he agrees with Cox’s assessment of decaying trust, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in a statement to the Deseret News he believes in the process.

“Trust is the most important currency in government, and unfortunately, we live in a moment of waning confidence and trust in government,” he said. “However, I have the utmost belief in the legislative process, in my colleagues, the Governor, and in the people of Utah.” 

Democracy, Wilson said, is a series of choices.

“It is our responsibility to choose wisely. The opportunities of the future rest in our hands. We cannot let the issue of the day bog us down. Rather, we must look at the big picture — ten, twenty, fifty years down the road — and work day in and day out to make sure our state is left better than we found it. That our children, grandchildren, and their grandchildren can be proud to call Utah home,” the speaker said.

Wilson has not yet responded directly to the governor.

Too many commissions, too many boards, and too many bills

Cox also said that the state has “FAR too many” boards and commissions.

“While we are a state that generally prefers limited government, it’s very possible that we lead the nation in the number of boards and commissions created each session,” he writes.

In the letter, Cox attached a list of over 400 boards and commissions in statute.

“I’m begging you to stare at it. No please, read every single one,” he says, before listing off the 17 new boards and committees created this year, including the Utah Innovation Lab Board, the Domestic Violence Data Task Force, the School Security Task Force, the Medical Cannabis Policy Advisory Board and the Justice Court Reform Task Force.

“Of course, many of these make sense in the moment and some of them are certainly necessary,” Cox writes. “... It seems like whenever someone has a terrible bill and we feel bad killing it, we compromise by giving them a new commission to study the issue.”

Cox pleads with lawmakers to reach out to the executive branch to study an issue before creating a new board — if they still feel like a board is necessary, lawmakers should ask the governor’s office to assemble a task force rather than creating one from statute, or put a sunset on any new boards enacted through the legislative process.

“And finally, if you would like to avoid a potential future veto on a board, let’s adopt a policy of removing two for every new board created ... there are plenty to choose from,” Cox writes.

The letter wasn’t all critical, either. Cox congratulates lawmakers, and thanks them for the “communication and collaboration between the legislative and executive branches.”

“You were able to secure record increases in education funding and teacher salaries, implement remarkable policy changes and funding for water conservation to save the Great Salt Lake and provide record investments in housing affordability,” he writes. “And you did all of that while also providing record tax relief for every Utahn. I am proud of the work you have done.”

And, in his closing paragraph, Cox reiterates a sentiment he’s pushed in several interviews and news conferences: “P.S. I almost forgot, but I would also very much support passing fewer than 575 bills next year!”