3 takeaways from Gov. Cox's State of the State address

Gov. Spencer Cox delivers 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)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox gave his first State of the State address on Thursday night, but it didn't last very long.

In an effort to limit the amount of time Utah officials would have to spend together in the House chamber on Capitol Hill, Cox's address ran about 15 minutes — perhaps the shortest in state history. But there was still substance, and even surprises, to be gleaned from the speech.

Here are three things Utah residents can take away from the address:

More vetoes more often?

Cox emphasized, as he has many times in the past several weeks, unity in his speech and called on Utahns to avoid "contempt, tribalism and discord." But he added that he still may disagree with legislators at times, and may disagree more often than past governors.

"I'm going to veto some of your bills," Cox said. "Probably more than my predecessors. Please don't take it personally. 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."

Former Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed five bills after the 2020 legislative session and signed 477, about average for his tenure in the office. So it wouldn't be too difficult for Cox to eclipse that number. Each veto will give Utah voters more insight into the priorities of the Cox administration.

Still, the 2021 legislative session began only three days ago and Cox was clearly trying to set the tone early for a new style of executive leadership.

The 'heart' of inequality?

Cox has spoken frequently about the need to tackle systemic inequality since last summer's protests about racial injustice. But Thursday brought the clearest insight into Cox's strategy for doing so, and it all starts in the classroom, he said.

Utahns "all agree that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish," a metaphor often cited by Republicans to explain their economic theory. But we give kids different tools, Cox argued. Growing up in an affluent community, he said, is like getting a speedboat, a Fish Finder and a nice fishing rod. "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."

Cox told the audience he truly believes "this concept of educational equity is at the heart of so much of the pain and division in our country right now."

"A high-quality education can change everything," he said, even "unlocking intergenerational poverty" and "disrupting the criminal justice pipeline."

So it makes sense that Cox has emphasized education throughout his campaign — he believes solving education will solve other problems, too. Utah has the lowest per-pupil spending in America and the Legislature has committed to higher education funding, but will a Cox administration be the one to turn around Utah public education?

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Lessons from the past

One commonality between Cox's inaugural address and his State of the State speech was the way he drew a lesson from Utah's past to speak to its present. At the Tuacahn Center for the Arts on Jan. 4, Cox discussed the settlers of southern Utah and how they created a flourishing community out of an inhospitable climate.

On Thursday, he used the Salt Lake Temple in the middle of downtown to make his point.

Construction began on the temple in 1853, Cox said, but after 10 years of "painstaking labor," workers made a devastating discovery: The foundation stones were cracking. The settlers made the "gut-wrenching decision to start over," Cox said, and the temple wasn't finished for another 30 years. But the building has stood the test of time and become one of Utah's most recognizable landmarks.

"Here in Utah, we build things to last," Cox said. "And when we learn a better way to do the job, we start back over and we build it again. Tonight, we find ourselves in a similar period of building and rebuilding."

A bit of a stretch? Maybe, but Cox's recall to Utah history speaks to a reverence for the state and for his office, and an acknowledgement of the leaders who came before. Utah celebrated 125 years of statehood on Cox's Inauguration Day. With all the historic events of the past year, in Utah and across the world, Cox knows this time will likewise be remembered, and spoken about, for generations to come.

Cox ended his speech with another tale from Utah's past, this one about a group of settlers who got their wagon stuck on a sandbar with Brigham Young, the first territorial governor and second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"A faithful member of the group asked if they should pray," he said. "To which (Young) replied, 'Pray? We prayed this morning. Let's push.'"

Now is the time to be bold and tackle the tough problems, Cox said. "Now is our time to push."

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Graham Dudley reports on politics, breaking news and more for KSL.com. A native Texan, Graham's work has previously appeared in the Brownwood (Texas) Bulletin and The Oklahoma Daily.


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