Estimated read time: 9-10 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Usually, Utah's annual State of the State speech is given by the governor to the Utah Legislature, as lawmakers embark on their 45-day marathon session of lawmaking.
But this year, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox did something a bit different. It was the first time that legislators were encouraged to also bring their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to join them for the speech on the House floor.
Cox and first lady Abby Cox were accompanied by their youngest daughter, Emma Kate, whom Cox said made him promise to "limit the number of dad jokes" in his speech, though he did joke that he'd be willing to sign a bill to change the legal driving age to 21 seeing as Emma Kate just got her driver's license a few weeks ago.
Cox focused his speech on Utah's youth, encouraging them to let "faith" and "not fear" guide them in their "pursuit of happiness" while navigating the state's most pressing issues, including water and housing, as well as dangers that social media pose to young minds.
"To anyone who believes that the next generation in Utah will be worse off than their parents, my message is simple," Cox said. "Not now. And not on our watch."
Gov. Spencer Cox's message to Utah youth
The governor pointed to recent polling that shows "more young people than ever before believe that, for the first time in our nation's history, their generation will be worse off than their parents."
"Many people seem to be accepting it as a fact that any efforts to create a better world are futile, as if some sort of slouching towards mediocrity — or worse — is inevitable," Cox said. "I know that many of the challenges of our day weigh heavily on your generation."
But Cox said, "Your moms and dads and grandparents seated next to you tonight were once young, too," and worried about "a lot of things you can probably relate to." He described hiding under desks to "practice for the nuclear bombs we were sure Communist Russia was sending our way."
He said they also worried about "overpopulation, acid rain," and even the Great Salt Lake flooding and destroying homes in 1983. Most of all, he said, they worried about "something known as the hole in the ozone layer," which at the time was described as an "environmental disaster (that) would be especially dire in Utah."
"If you haven't heard much about the hole in the ozone lately, that's probably because we've been busy fixing it, and good news doesn't seem to sell as well as gloom and doom," Cox said. "The world came together with the United States leading the way, and our planet is restoring that critical part of our atmosphere."
All these problems have a "common root," Cox said. "Fear."
"Fear," he added, "destroys happiness."
So Cox said he had a message for "every young person grappling with fear," whether it be fear of finding a successful career, fear of affording a home, or "fear of a planet in peril."
"The future of our state is not written in the stars. It is for us, the free men and women of Utah, to dictate our destiny," Cox said.
He then encouraged Utah's youth to "turn your fears" into "faith."
"I don't mean faith in the religious sense, although I am a proponent of that, too," Cox said. "I mean faith in good things to come. Faith in us and faith in yourselves. Faith in our capacity and commitment to solve today's hard problems together. Faith in a future worth being excited about."
'Year of the teacher'
Cox focused part of his speech on where Utah's youth spend much of their time, the classroom, and again urged lawmakers to consider his budget recommendation to invest heavily in education, particularly to boost teacher salaries by $6,000 a year.
"The data is clear. The largest variable in student outcomes is the quality of the teacher," Cox said. "And if we want to guarantee that we have the best teachers, we must invest in those teachers."
So, Cox said he's asking lawmakers to "help me make this the 'year of the teacher.' Not only can we provide at least a 5% increase to the weighted pupil unit, but we can also give every teacher the largest raise in our state's history."
Utah will not become California
Next, Cox focused on Utah's housing affordability crisis — an issue that's especially sharpened over the last two years as the state's housing prices skyrocketed by unprecedented rates as the pandemic housing frenzy ravaged the West. Even as the market corrects, Utah housing experts say the state's home prices will remain high and out of reach for many due to the state's stubborn housing shortage.
"Fortunately," Cox said, "this is a problem we can solve."
Cox said the issue is really as "simple" as solving a supply versus demand imbalance. "If we want less expensive housing, we simply need more of it."
So, Cox said he's "excited" to work with legislators, as well as cities, to craft legislation to "ensure we increase supply and reduce the cost of housing."
Cox and legislative leaders have told the Deseret News they're supporting policy changes to help loosen controls around certain housing developments and more strongly incentivize (or force) cities to include moderate housing in their plans.
"We can build more and do it in a way that does not diminish the quality of life," Cox said. "Smart density, in the right places, paired with improved infrastructure from wise investments, and renewed emphasis on single-family starter homes ... will make certain that Utah does not become like California and that future generations will be able to call this state home."
Cox then focused his speech on one of the most pressing issues facing Utah and other western states: The drought and future supply of water.
"We find ourselves in the greatest drought in the western United States in over 1,200 years," Cox said. "Earlier this month, a report predicted that in just five short years the Great Salt Lake will completely disappear. Let me be absolutely clear. We are not going to let that happen."
Cox noted that last year lawmakers passed 12 "major water conservation bills and $500 million in new funding." More importantly, Cox said Utahns upped their conservation efforts.
Cox also recalled how he asked Utahns in the summer of 2021 to pray for rain, and even though he said he's been "mocked both at home and abroad" for the prayers, he said he makes "no excuses for my beliefs."
"I am grateful — and I thank God every night — for the impressive amounts of snow we have received so far this season. Miraculously, the Great Salt Lake has already risen more than it did all last year," Cox said.
He asked again "that we join together to ask for relief from this drought." He said he believes "God can fill the lake. But if not, then we must."
So this year, Cox said state leaders "have to maintain a continued focus on water conservation and agriculture optimization," and he noted he's proposed another $500 million in water conservation investment, as well as new policy changes to reduce use.
He also called on Utahns to "look beyond those that would demonize our farmers. Our farmers and ranchers are the backbone of our nation and state. ... I promise they will be a huge part of the solution, just like you and me. Let's continue to help them modernize their operations so that we can both save water and increase food production."
Social media companies, watch out
Cox also promised a crackdown on social media companies "who have been reckless in protecting our youth." He announced he'll be working with lawmakers on "legislation that will prevent social media companies from collecting data from our kids, limit the use of cell phones in the classroom, and empower parents to reduce this toxic technology in our homes."
He also said Abby Cox will be working on a new initiative to help support foster families.
Lastly, Cox again promised a significant tax cut to Utahns this year, even after two years of tax cuts that totaled about $300 million.
The governor has proposed a massive $1 billion tax cut package this year, though legislators will spend the session hashing out what form of tax cut they'll ultimately approve.
Utah House and Senate Democrats issued prepared statements in response to the governor's speech.
Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said Democrats have "sounded the alarm about the water crisis in Utah."
"During this time, we have consistently worked alongside stakeholders to propose legislation that will create a plan to ensure our water future," Escamilla said. "Due to the combined impacts of climate change and lack of action, immediate commitment is essential before the Great Salt Lake disappears. Democrats will continue to be part of the solution."
House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, also pointed to Utah's housing crisis, saying, "Skyrocketing prices and a shortage of available units have pushed too many people out. We need to take action to provide more affordable spaces for families to place down roots."
Escamilla said the state must "provide adequate shelter space and wraparound services" for people experiencing homelessness. "As Democrats we will continue to advocate for more housing solutions that are affordable and practice intelligent, forward-thinking community planning and development."
However, Escamilla said, "coverage should go beyond housing." She called for better access to affordable health care, particularly for children.
"Utah ranks 46th in the nation when it comes to insuring children and an estimated 82,000 children in Utah are uninsured. This is a 39% increase since 2016: the highest in the nation," she said.
On education, Romero said Utah Democrats agree teacher pay is a priority. But "we also feel strongly about smaller classroom sizes, full-day kindergarten, and increasing social support in our schools for our children to succeed."
"As Democrats, we will continue to firmly oppose vouchers and other proposals that undermine and erode our public education system," Romero said.
On tax cuts, Escamilla said as "inflation and a looming recession continue to weigh heavy on working families in our state, Democrats will advocate against impulsive tax cuts," while advocating for "meaningful relief and investment to uplift everyone."