SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – In his monthly press conference, Utah Governor Spencer J. Cox was bombarded with questions on a variety of topics, including drought conditions, fireworks, a name change in the works at Dixie State University, transgender rights, and more.
The governor began his meeting with the press by stating that Utah is facing what could be the worst drought conditions in history and that the proper adjustments need to be made by residents.
“We need to start acting like we live in a desert,” Cox urged of Utahns by suggesting that folks embrace a more yellow look on their lawns or turn to zero scaping their parking strips to conserve water.
“Lawns are very resilient and will rebound next year,” Cox assured residents.
According to Cox, 100% of the state is in drought conditions with 70% at the highest possible designations of exception drought levels.
Moving on to discuss COVID-19 vaccination efforts, Cox declared that while the state was at or just below the national average for administration, it appears unlikely that Utah will reach the goal of 70% eligible adults receiving one dose of the vaccine by July 4. As it stands, 64.3% of eligible Utah residents have received the vaccine, just below the national average of 65%
Still, Cox wants state residents to get the vaccine, especially as COVID-19 variants, including one that has greatly affected the United Kingdom, the Delta variant, continue to develop.
“The good news is vaccines work to protect us, to protect you, to protect all of us from variants,” Cox added when giving his vaccination update.
The governor thanked media partners for their work in providing vaccine clinics to the community, specifically thanking ABC4 for a vaccine clinic that was held at the television station a few weeks ago.
After addressing the drought and the vaccination efforts, Cox opened the floor to questions from the media in attendance both in person and virtually. The flood gates opened as he was questioned on many issues for more than 45 minutes of his 54-minute-long press conference.
Asked about what more the state and local leaders should be doing to address human-caused climate change, Cox responded with “lots of things.”
The issue is something that has already seen a lot of work at the government level, according to Cox.
“We’ve implemented many things over the last couple of years that will have an impact,” he stated, citing Tier 3 gasoline as an example of a measure that has reduced greenhouse effects.
Cox says he recently met with members of the Biden administration to discuss clean energy production but added the federal government was obstructing the process and would work to streamline the approval system.
He also cited a recent announcement made on nuclear technology development that could have rippling effects on the entire Intermountain West region and perhaps the entire globe.
The priority for the state, however, is improving drought conditions, starting with modifying certain behaviors, Cox said.
“We have to be prepared for these kinds of drought events,” he said, referring to the current statewide drought.
After speaking in a virtual town hall setting earlier in the week, in which he urged Utahns to “cut back on fireworks this year,” Cox was asked if he would be enacting a statewide ban. According to him, and a legal opinion he received prior to meeting with the media on Thursday, the governor is unable to enforce such a restriction on the aerial explosives.
It will be up to city governments to enact, or not, any fireworks restrictions.
“I’ve told the legislature I think it’s a terrible idea not to have additional restrictions this year. They haven’t shown any interest in doing anything more around that, so we are relying on local governments to put those restrictions in place,” Cox explained.
He continued to add that he specifically requested the legal opinion from the state attorney general’s office, as well as from his own counsel. Had he been given the go-ahead, Cox said he would have implemented the statewide ban.
Critical Race Theory
Cox was asked whether or not he will call a special session to settle the discussion on the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools before classes start up again at the end of the summer. The governor stated that is unlikely since it has already been brought up at the legislative level. Another session, called by the legislature itself could only be done in the event of an emergency.
“We’ll see what happens in January, we’re wasting a lot of breath on this one,” he said. “There’s been accusations that this is being taught in schools but those have been investigated and none of them have come to fruition.”
He added he does not think the theory should be taught in schools and would have to read any bill for or against it before he vetoes it or not.
Although both Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson have stated that the state legislature is not willing to support a government-fund lottery or raffle as a vaccine incentive, Cox was asked again if any sort of incentive provided by the state is possible.
While talks are still ongoing, little progress has been made in changing the collective mind of the legislature, Cox responded but added he does not believe that a giveaway would be a violation of the state constitution.
Putting the onus outside of the government’s reach, Cox made reference to a call he made to the private sector, including a letter that was sent to 10,000 Utah businesses earlier in the week, asking them to “Bring It Home,” by providing vaccine incentives and clinics for their employees and their families.
“We have had some businesses that have offered $100 or $200 to their employees to get vaccinated and we would encourage that,” he said.
Dixie State University’s name change
On Monday, a committee met to discuss a final name suggestion for a rebranding of Dixie State University as Utah Polytechnic State University, or Utah Tech, for short.
Questioned on his response to the pending name change, Cox replied that he understood how controversial a college name change can be to a local community.
“When I was at Snow College and we added the color orange, it was the most divisive thing that happened in Sanpete in about 100 years,” he said, half-jokingly.
Explaining the process that led to the recommended name change, Cox mentioned that the public will still have an opportunity to weigh in.
To those who may be put off by the recommended name, Cox rattled off a list of universities around the country that have similar branding.
“Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, Cal Tech, these types of universities are very common,” he stated.
Transgender youth and sports
Another hot button issue in the state, and nation, relates to transgender youth and their ability to participate in sports programs at school. When House Bill 302, which would prevent transgender children from playing in female sports was introduced in February, Cox gave an emotional address to state leadership, asking them to take more time to study the issue and to meet with transgender youth.
The issue has refaced recently as such legislative measures are still pending, and when asked about it, Cox stated that he is still concerned with any effects that a bill would have.
“I’m much more concerned about suicide rates among our LBGT population, our transgender friends, that’s certainly where my emphasis has been,” Cox said. “I want to make sure that whatever we do, we do in a way that is kind and compassionate and that people are at the table having that conversation.”
Cox also stated he is not aware of any current bill that has been drafted but knows that it is still a topic of discussion.
Ridicule and backlash
The governor made headlines and received what he called “vitriolic reaction” for his plea for Utahns to pray for rain a couple of weeks ago. When asked if he considered it an example of growing ridicule towards people of faith, Cox opined that unfair ridicule “is growing against everyone,” not just people of faith.
“We continue to be addicted to outrage, I think contempt is celebrated when it should be looked down upon,” he observed.
Contrasting the outrage that came when he experienced when making statements about Pride Month in the state, with the response he got from his prayer request, Cox said he was disappointed in both forms of backlashes.
“I could declare today that the sky is blue and I would still get backlash for it,” he joked.
Cox added that he is “done” with all the hate and anger he sees people use towards each other.
He continued to add that healthy criticism is a good thing, but that unfettered anger is something he is not interested in proliferating.
“I’m tired of it,” he said.
When asked why he issued a Pride Month Proclamation, despite knowing there would be an uproar, Cox’s response was simple.
“Because I love our LGBT community,” he said. “They’re awesome and I want them to feel like they’re an important part of the state.”