Utah Gov. Cox vetoes controversial transgender student sports ban; lawmakers plan override

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has vetoed the controversial bill that would ban transgender girls from competing in girls high school sports. But legislative leaders are already planning to meet to try and override the veto.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has vetoed the controversial bill that would ban transgender girls from competing in girls high school sports. But legislative leaders are already planning to meet to try and override the veto. (Trent Nelson)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has vetoed the controversial bill that would ban transgender girls from competing on girls' high school sports.

But legislative leaders immediately announced they will soon meet try to override his veto — and they believe they could have enough support in both the Utah House and Senate.

"I believe in fairness and protecting the integrity of women's sports. Unfortunately, HB11 has several fundamental flaws which is why I've chosen to veto the bill," Cox tweeted.

The governor's veto comes about two weeks after the session ended, on March 4, when he promised a veto after lawmakers introduced a new version of the bill to ban students in the final three hours of the 45-day legislative session.

He pointed to the bill's last-minute changes with "no public input," the lack of financial protection for the Utah High School Activities Association should it face lawsuits, and the compromise with LGBTQ advocates that "fell apart" on the final night of the session.

Cox also released a five-page letter explaining his decision.

"The transgender sports participation issue is one of the most divisive of our time. Because there are logical and passionate arguments by many parties, finding compromise or common ground can be difficult," Cox wrote.

The earlier version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, sought to create a commission that would determine whether each specific transgender student who wants to play should do so.

"Unfortunately, over time, the negotiations got bogged down debating the makeup of the commission and some of the language in the bill. While we were not able to reach an agreement on the commission, the bill sponsors did agree to remove some of the most troubling language," Cox said.

He noted that "neither side was thrilled" with that compromise, "but there was a path forward."

"And while I admit it was not perfect, there was general agreement that we could pass the bill and continue tweaking the concept during the next year, as necessary," he said.

But on the last night of the session, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton — who had not been a previous sponsor of the bill — introduced the new all-out ban. After a long, tense debate, the bill passed both the Senate and the House with a majority that was not veto-proof.

During the Senate debate, the minority caucus pleaded for time to discuss the changes among themselves and was denied. The bill passed the Senate 16-13, and the House then passed the bill 46-29 with its changes, after a 15-minute debate.

As he introduced his version, McCay said he believes it would be best to put the ban in place and create a "springing trigger" that will come into play if a court stays the ban. If the state receives an injunction, the bill would initiate a "brilliant compromise" to create a commission to determine eligibility, McCay said.

He said he considered whether Utah should address the issue like 10 other states have, by putting "a ban in place," calling the move a "pin in the debate ... before we see an uptake of transgender females participating in sports."

Cox has contended the last-minute changes did not fall into the fair process the state usually tries to follow.


"While it is not unusual to have legislators propose changes to bills, it is unusual to have major overhauls proposed at the last minute on significant policy issues that had been the subject of so much negotiation. It is even rarer to have these pass, especially with no communication with those who had been negotiating the issue," Cox said, noting his surprise when the bill was introduced and passed at the end of the session.

Equality Utah thanked the governor for placing "children over politics" with the veto.

"This was never about protecting women's sports," Troy Williams, Equality Utah executive director, said in a statement. "This is about politicians protecting themselves from primary challenges from the extreme right. Many lawmakers have called us to say they hate the bill, but they will vote for it because they fear primary challenges."

After Cox vetoed the bill Tuesday, legislative leaders announced they plan to hold a veto override session in an attempt to restore the bill. Then Cox issued a call for a special legislative session on the same day, March 25, "to consider financial and legal issues regarding (HB11)."

Senate and House leaders say they conducted a poll of their members and found two-thirds of each chamber wants to reconvene for a veto override session.

"We must work to preserve the integrity of women's sports and ensure it remains fair and safe for all," Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a statement. "While Gov. Cox and I disagree on this bill, I respect the legislative process. We have been listening to our constituents, talking with experts, and we feel it's important to make decisions now that protect athletes and ensure women are not edged out of their sport."

He called the potential nonmovement on the issue "a step backward for women."

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, acknowledged Cox's veto was "expected."

"Members of the Legislature, including the sponsor, have worked tirelessly for more than a year to find the best way to approach a complex issue and I anticipate that we will have sufficient votes to override the veto. Ultimately, the Legislature recognizes the value of girls athletics and our members want to ensure girls have the level playing field to compete that was created by Title IX," Wilson said.

Ultimately, the Legislature recognizes the value of girls' athletics and our members want to ensure girls have the level playing field to compete that was created by Title IX.

–House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville

The Legislature will convene its veto override session on Friday, March 25. A live stream will be available at le.utah.gov. The official call will be posted on the legislative website. The special session called by Cox will take place at 2 p.m. at the Capitol.

Birkeland said in a statement she is "disappointed" with Cox's veto, but hopes the Legislature will continue in its efforts to protect the integrity of women's sports.

"High school girls across the state have expressed their concerns, and we owe it to them to listen. Sports are their opportunity to overcome obstacles and break barriers. But in order to do that, they need a fair playing field," she said, adding that she will "continue to advocate on behalf of the girls who feel like they cannot speak out for themselves."

The Utah Education Association praised Cox's veto of the bill Wednesday evening and urged lawmakers to not overturn it.

"Across our races, backgrounds and genders, all of us want to be treated with dignity and respect. Yesterday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox lived up to this shared ideal by vetoing a bill that will cause great harm to our most vulnerable students," UEA President Heidi Matthews said in a statement.

"We applaud him for doing what is just and right, instead of inflaming and dividing communities by devaluing some students because of the gender with which they identify. We join with parents, educators, and students calling on elected officials to work with us to make sure our public schools are places where all students are free to thrive and to learn without fear or intimidation."

The bill's passage also raised the question of whether the NBA might pull its 2023 All-Star Game from Salt Lake City, as it did from Charlotte in 2017 over a similarly controversial bill passed in North Carolina.

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Ashley Imlay is an evening news manager for KSL.com. A lifelong Utahn, Ashley has also worked as a reporter for the Deseret News and is a graduate of Dixie State University.


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