SALT LAKE CITY — Before a thinned-out crowd of legislators and other state officials, some watching from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, Utah's new governor gave his first State of the State address Thursday evening from the House chamber of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City.
Gov. Spencer Cox, who has been in the office for just over three weeks, focused his remarks on the pandemic as well as on education, equity, and calls for unity after a tumultuous few months in American politics.
He kept the address to about 15 minutes — the shortest State of the State ever, he said — to limit the amount of time officials would need to be in proximity.
"More than 1,500 Utahns are not with us tonight" because of COVID-19, Cox said, thanking the health care workers and everyday Utahns who've "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.
Education and opportunity
Cox told Utah teachers they have become more important than ever before during the pandemic. "You have pivoted on a dime and figured out ways to do what seemed impossible," he said, saying they deserve our respect — and a raise.
"I'm grateful to you legislators who agree," he said, "and have pledged historic education funding this year, including $112 million in bonuses for our teachers." Cox released a $21.7 billion budget plan last week, but the Legislature will get the final say on which aspects to keep and tweak.
Cox's address also touched on issues of racial equality and social justice, one of the six major themes in the governor's 500-day plan released earlier this week.
"Over the past year, we have had some critical conversations about race and justice," Cox acknowledged, adding that "putting up a sign or joining a rally isn't enough."
"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." He mentioned educational equity — "a great education from a high-quality, well-compensated teacher" — as a path to better outcomes overall.
"We all agree that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish. There is nothing controversial there," Cox said. "However, in many of our more affluent neighborhoods, we teach kids how to fish and give them a speedboat, a graphite rod and a Fish Finder. And you know what? Those kids catch fish.
"But in too many of our rural communities and communities of color, we give kids a stick and a string — and then we can't figure out why they don't catch as many fish," he said. Cox said he believes the "concept of educational equity is at the heart" of the "pain and division" in America today.
"A high-quality education can change everything," he said, breaking "intergenerational poverty" and "unlocking the American dream."
'No room for contempt'
Cox and Republican legislators seem in accord on their desire to slash taxes, and Cox's address said he aims to provide "an $80 million tax cut targeted at senior citizens and Utah families." On Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill that would cut taxes for many veterans and some seniors on Social Security.
But Cox cautioned that he and the Legislature aren't always going to agree — perhaps even more than in the past. The Legislature began its first general session under the Cox administration on Tuesday.
"I'm going to veto some of your bills," he told the assembled lawmakers, "probably more than my predecessors. Please don't take it personally."
He promised to do the same when legislators override his vetoes. "It's simply part of the process," he said, "a gloriously messy and inspired process."
But with disagreement should never come enmity, Cox said, alluding to an increasingly shrill and sometimes violent political debate nationwide. "There must be no room for contempt or hate. We are friends. We must always be friends."
Cox concluded with a caution that even with ambitious policy goals, government "was never designed to solve all of our problems."
"It's not government that makes our country special. It's volunteer organizations and churches and philanthropists and neighbors taking care of each other and solving problems so government doesn't have to.
"In short, if we want smaller government, we need bigger people."
Utah Democratic leaders released responses to the speech on Thursday. House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said Utah Democrats are "eager to work with Gov. Cox's new administration to help Utah families recover from this pandemic and get moving again."
He also gave Democrats credit for leading out on many of Cox's policy priorities. "We're glad to see Utah's executive leadership coming around to our point of view," King said, "and proposing policies and actions that Democrats have long been fighting for." He mentioned education and infrastructure funding as examples.
"As Democrats, we intend to hold executive leadership and our Republican colleagues to these commitments," King said.
Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said Democrats "applaud Gov. Cox's plan to speed the rollout of vaccines for health care workers, teachers, first responders, and other high-risk individuals."
She said no Utahn should be "left out, left behind or disregarded" in the vaccine rollout process and that Democrats will "fight for transparency and accountability at every step of the way."
Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla said she was ready to work with Cox to overcome systemic racism and "the vast inequalities and disparities" that stand as "barriers" against some Americans.
"The playing field is far from level on several fronts," said Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, "and we Democrats will bring forward policies to address these inequalities."
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, issued a statement after the address and said he agrees with Cox about speeding vaccines to the most vulnerable and increasing education funding. Adams said the Legislature "looks forward to having the difficult conversations needed for our state to progress."
"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," he said. "The Senate remains committed to working through the process to find the best outcomes for Utahns."
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said lawmakers "appreciate the vision that our new governor has for the state, and his policy goals."
"We share many of those policy goals as a Legislature," he said, "and we look forward to working with our new governor this year."