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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox began his second State of the State address on Thursday evening with several calls to action to Utahns.
He called on Utahns — Republicans and Democrats alike — to not "give up on the idea of America," despite today's ugly national discord.
He also urged his fellow conservatives to prioritize election access, despite the "unsubstantiated claims and flat-out lies" infiltrating the national debate around election security.
And as for COVID-19, the disease that continues to fuel record case numbers and overwhelm Utah's hospitals, he called on Utahns to "be strong."
"To Utahns from all sides of the political spectrum, there has been and will undoubtedly continue to be disagreements on how best to respond to this ongoing pandemic," Cox said in his speech on the House floor to lawmakers.
"But may we all find common ground tonight on this one issue. Our children need us to be strong. They need us to point to a hopeful future."
As COVID-19 continues to ravage Utah and "the rest of the world," Cox said there are "few silver linings." But he pointed to a few.
"I am encouraged that Utah currently has the sixth-lowest hospitalization rate in the nation — and that our rate is less than half the national average," Cox said.
Currently, Utah is among the top states in the nation with the highest case rates over the last week. As of Thursday, Utah ranked third in the nation behind Rhode Island and Wisconsin as states with the most cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days.
But the governor again expressed hope that an end to the pandemic may be drawing nearer.
"Experts also believe that Summit County has already started declining and assure me that the rest of the state will soon follow," he said. "We have tremendous medical and public health workers in the state who deserve our deep respect, support and thanks. That was true in early 2020 when the pandemic first began. It is even more true today."
Why Cox says Utah is 'the last great hope of America'
While the governor began his speech with COVID-19, the biggest challenge the nation and the world is facing today, he ended it with another call to action to address a more conceptual but still formidable threat facing the nation.
"Please don't give up on the idea of America," he urged.
It's a message the governor had for both Republicans and Democrats.
"To my Republican friends, who feel like the world is moving too quickly and the other side is trying to change our very way of life," Cox said, "I agree with George W. Bush who said, 'too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.' Please don't give up on the idea of America.
"And to my Democratic friends, who worry that our country is broken beyond repair because we are failing to take care of each other,'" Cox said, "I agree with Bill Clinton, 'There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.' Please don't give up on the idea of America."
Cox urged Utah's leaders to not be "distracted for a second by cynics who fail to appreciate the Utah Way." Instead, Cox urged them to "cheerfully and resolutely go about doing the people's work, the real work and the hard work of governance. Competently, and often quietly, lifting Utahns up and improving lives."
In today's national political landscape, Cox said he no longer believes "all politics is local." Rather, "today all politics is national. And that is bad. Very bad."
The governor said it's easy to watch cable news and "simply adopt all of their talking points and policies." But he warned that's a "terribly destructive" approach. "And it certainly isn't leadership."
"But that's not us. That's not Utah," Cox said. "At least it's not Utah at its best."
Cox said Utahns and Americans are in "desperate search for leadership."
"In past generations as Americans, we dreamed big. Now, I'm afraid that our eyes are consistently in the gutter," Cox said. "But not in Utah. Not yet anyway. In Utah, we still look up."
Cox said Utahns have a choice. "We can either become like every other state in the union or we can continue to be that quirky state out West that still believes in working together."
"I firmly believe in my heart that if America is the last great hope of the world, then Utah is the last great hope of America," Cox said.
Cox addressed recent efforts that have questioned Utah's election security without evidence and despite its longstanding track record with successful voting by mail.
"Unfortunately, some in our country have found that unsubstantiated claims and flat-out lies are an effective way to destabilize our constitutional republic and make it harder for their opponents to participate and vote," he said. "Voting security must never be about making it harder for legal voters to vote."
Last month, a GOP-controlled committee of lawmakers voted to approve a legislative audit of the state's election system, similar to one that was already conducted in 2019. That was preceded by a separate effort to put an independent, "forensic" audit on Utah's ballot — led by a Republican Utah lawmaker who resigned in October amid backlash for spearheading a committee hearing fraught with misinformation on Utah's Capitol Hill to call for an Arizona-style election audit, even though former President Donald Trump handily won Utah in 2020.
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson has called those "seeds of doubt" in Utah's election integrity "destructive."
Cox, in his speech, said when he was lieutenant governor he "championed bills every single session to strengthen and improve election integrity. This year we will continue that trend with another bill from our good Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson."
"Utah has been and will continue to be a model of election integrity," he said.
The governor urged lawmakers to "please beware of false choices."
"As a conservative, I believe that we should always work to make constitutional rights more accessible, not less," Cox said. "I am very proud that voter participation has increased since I became lieutenant governor and now governor. We can have safe and secure elections without making it harder to exercise our constitutional right to vote."
Cox said he's heard some argue that the "constitution will someday, if not now, hang by a thread and need rescuing." But he warned some of those same people to look inward.
"I worry that what a few of them fail to see is that, they — just like those for whom they have so much disdain and contempt — are daily hacking away at those cords, recklessly believing that they will know exactly when to stop slicing and start saving," Cox said. "Tonight, I'm asking every one of us to do our part to start tying those 'mystic cords of memory' back together again."
Cox said last year Utah made "historic investments" in education to the tune of $510 million. But "this year we can do more," he said.
"That's why I am proposing more than $970 million in education funding with a priority focus on at-risk and disadvantaged students. A child's ZIP code should never determine their future or their opportunities," he said.
The governor also pointed to his budget recommendation to eliminate all school fees for basic coursework, which he said will save parents $55 million each year.
"But money alone is not enough. The data is clear — for far too many children an inability to read at grade level by third grade means a life of struggle and disadvantages. And that is why I am asking you to join me in supporting Sen. Ann Millner's bill to make sure every child has the reading foundation necessary for future success," Cox said.
Cox also addressed the drought that continues to grip Utah and the West, crediting Utahns for stepping up "in a big way, conserving billions of gallons of water to help us through this crisis."
He specifically encouraged lawmakers to support bills being sponsored by Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, and Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, to prioritize water storage "and dramatically improve water conservation in our state."
Cox also specifically named House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, for championing "saving the Great Salt Lake."
We can't 'let our state become California'
In addition to water issues, Cox said other issues will limit Utah's ability to grow, including air quality, transportation, housing affordability and infrastructure needs.
"Our goal should never be to grow for growth's sake," Cox said. "We must prioritize a quality of life that all Utahns can enjoy."
Cox referred specifically to people who have moved to Utah from out of state, of which there are many, especially over the past year.
"Welcome to our beautiful state. ... We have so much to learn from you," Cox said. "But if I may make one small request: Please don't attempt to change us into a place you just left."
Cox specifically urged lawmakers to support legislation aimed at stripping "government regulations that needlessly increase Utah's housing prices."
"We can increase supply without decreasing quality of life," Cox said. "This one will not be easy. But we cannot let our state become California."
Cox said one of the "greatest challenges" Utahns are facing today is "the booming tax of inflation, which just recently hit rates not seen since 1982." He said Utah must be a "bulwark against the bad decisions in Washington, D.C., that are harming our people."
He credited Utah leaders' "critical decisions" during the pandemic and Utahns' "resilience" as the reasons for Utah's strong financial standing "with the largest rainy day fund, lowest unemployment and largest budget surplus in our state's history."
As a state, and as a legislature, we have simply not made the investments in housing that are needed.
–Brian King, House minority leader
Cox pointed to the $100 million tax cut package the Utah Legislature passed for Utah seniors, military veterans and families, and again plugged his proposal to use the $160 million lawmakers have already set aside this year for tax relief in the form of a grocery tax credit.
"With this year's surplus, I think we can all agree that it's time we gave some of that hard-earned money back to Utahns."
Republican leaders' reaction
The House speaker and Senate president applauded Cox's speech Thursday night.
"Because we work from the same conservative foundation, the governor's agenda aligns with many of the principles we laid out in our Utah Way Forward plan on the first day of the session," Wilson said in a prepared statement. "We look forward to working productively with the executive branch throughout the session and beyond."
Wilson tweeted appreciation for the governor's focus on the state's water challenges, "including the viability of the Great Salt Lake."
Wilson also applauded Cox's focus on balancing quality of life with growth, cutting taxes, education, and "maintaining the Utah Way."
Adams said he enjoyed Cox's speech and he agreed "Utah is the hope of America."
"Our state has the opportunity to lead the nation," Adams said in a prepared statement. "In the Senate, we are dedicated to improving our state today by making a better tomorrow. We will form and execute plans by investing in education, sustainable energy, water and transportation infrastructure.
"While we may have different opinions on how to allocate some funds and provide tax relief to Utahns," Adams added, "I look forward to collaborating and working with Gov. Cox and Lt. Gov. Henderson towards Utah's collective vision."
What Utah Democrats had to say
House and Senate Democrats released a prepared statement Thursday evening in response to the governor's speech, listing off priorities and approaches they think Utah's leaders should take on issues ranging from COVID-19 to cutting taxes.
"We need to create more options for housing that is affordable. We need to better protect our precious water supplies. We need to invest in sustainable infrastructure and make our communities more resilient to natural disasters. And we need to help our families, our friends, and every community throughout our great state get through this current wave of the pandemic," said Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City.
Mayne said "all Utahns" should have access to "quality, affordable health care," but that's falling by the wayside amid the omicron surge.
"But right now, our hospitals are again overrun with sick, mostly unvaccinated patients. And health care workers are overwhelmed and tired," Mayne said. "Our communities have been hit hard by the current COVID-19 omicron variant. After nearly two years now, we are all sick of this pandemic. But, as lawmakers, we cannot simply legislate this virus away."
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said Utah's policies "must reflect the guidance of medical and public health experts."
"We know vaccines WORK to keep people from getting terribly sick. We know that masks, testing protocols, and social distancing measures WORK to stop the virus from spreading," King wrote. "And we know that vaccine requirements WORK so businesses can stay open and keep their employees and their customers protected. And they WORK so that our kids can go to school safely. As Democrats, we will not back down from pushing data-driven policies that will keep all Utahns safe and protected."
Mayne said "there is no denying" the pandemic has changed Utah's economy.
"Having a good job now means having choices, autonomy, flexibility. It means a livable wage. Paid family leave. Vacation and sick leave. Worker protections. Affordable options for child care. And the option to work wherever and whenever you want," she said.
That should be reflected in Utah's policies moving forward, Mayne said.
"As a legislature, we would be wise to wake up and realize people aren't moving to Utah for low taxes or GDP growth," she said. "Job seekers and businesses are drawn to our state to enjoy our public lands and beautiful landscapes. Others come to raise a family in a safe and healthy place. Our greatest asset is our quality of life."
But King said Utah's "chronic shortage of affordable housing" is what's preventing "many Utahns from achieving their dreams."
"As a state, and as a legislature, we have simply not made the investments in housing that are needed," King said, backing the $228 million Cox included in his recommended budget as a "step in the right direction."
Mayne said lawmakers should also prioritize "investing in children," calling Utah's schools and teachers "severely underfunded" even before the pandemic.
That's why lawmakers should not cut income taxes, King argued, instead calling for more "targeted" tax cuts as well as a full repeal of the state's sales tax on food.
But may we all find common ground tonight on this one issue. Our children need us to be strong. They need us to point to a hopeful future.
–Utah Gov. Spencer Cox
"What we should NOT do this session," King said, "is take away millions of dollars from classrooms, teachers, and our system of public education. Every income tax dollar we cut away, we are cutting our investment in our children and future generations. Instead of sweeping cuts, let's support targeted tax proposals for our seniors; for our families; for those with fixed incomes; and importantly, let's eliminate the state's regressive sales tax on food."
King also said Utah needs to help make "our institutions and communities be more inclusive for all Utahns, regardless of their gender, ethnic or racial background, and culture."
"Structural racism and inequity hurts all of us. While there are some who can't even confront the words 'equity,' or 'inclusion,' or acknowledge the injustices of our nation's history, we must continue to work towards a future of equal opportunity for everyone," King said.
Mayne also said investment in "sustainable infrastructure, building resilient communities, and maintaining our limited supply of water should be a top priority this session." She said all Utahns — "urban and rural — should be set up to thrive."
"Championing the wellbeing of our communities demands an inventive spirit and a desire to answer pressing challenges like drought, growth, and development with commitment to a sustainable future," Mayne said.
Democrats this session, King said, "will strive to empower people over special interests."
"Unfortunately, too often corporate special interests throw millions of dollars at this legislature hoping to influence what policies get passed," King said. "Big moneyed interests want to keep bad policies alive and stop progress and good changes from happening. This needs to end."
Finally, Mayne called on lawmakers to "protect our democracy, not undermine it with lies and misinformation," pointing to rhetoric around Utah's election system.
"Utahns want their elections system to be fair, secure, and accessible, not politicized or needlessly and falsely maligned," Mayne said. "We urge the governor, and our legislative colleagues, to take a stand against the extremist voices of a fringe minority, and work with us — join us where most Utahns are — and let's get things done for the people of Utah."