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Gov.-elect Spencer Cox On COVID-19 Vaccines, Education and Disagreement

A man in a suite gestures while speaking into a microphone at a podium.
Trent Nelson
The Salt Lake Tribune
Gov.-elect Spencer Cox has been lieutenant governor for seven years after serving in the state Legislature, the Sanpete County Commission and as mayor of his hometown of Fairview.

Next month, Utah will have a new governor for the first time in 11 years: Spencer Cox. He’s been lieutenant governor for seven years after serving in the state Legislature, the Sanpete County Commission and as mayor of his hometown of Fairview.

KUER politics reporter Sonja Hutson talked to him about what Utah should expect from a Cox administration.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sonja Hutson: Are there plans to make more [COVID-19] testing available? What about plans to make any changes to the approach of not closing down businesses and things like that?

Spencer Cox: I've been saying since March that widespread testing is actually the answer. I'm still disappointed that we don't have more ubiquitous testing and that is really a product of [the] federal government that didn't focus on testing the way they did vaccines. The good news is now that we do have more rapid testing coming online every day. And so that is how we lower the rate of spread, keep the economy open as much as we possibly can and then bridge the gap to a vaccine. I'm pressuring the federal government to get us as many of the … tests as they will give us and purchasing as many of the tests that are on the market now as we possibly can.

SH: What aspects of vaccine distribution in Utah still need to be worked out, particularly in rural Utah, and what is your plan to address those?

SC: Those discussions are ongoing right now. We are set up to distribute the vaccine once it comes to the state of Utah, to hospitals and clinics in areas broadly as we bring them on board, but making sure that they have the infrastructure to deliver those shots in a timely fashion. And so we're going to have to get creative about repurposing places and people so that we can just deliver those vaccines all day, every day to as many people as we possibly can. We've got a lot of volunteers, former nurses and nurses in training. We just need to make sure that we have the locations and the processes to do that and to track it. All of those things are logistics issues that we're working through right now.

SH: There's been tension this year between the governor's office and the state Legislature over coronavirus restrictions. Republican House Speaker Brad Wilson told me a couple of weeks ago that he thinks you’ll be more receptive to feedback than the previous administration. But what do you do when there's a disagreement?

SC: Well, look, that tension is built in, but we can do better. And it's really important to me that we do better. So I'm going to be working very closely with not just legislative leadership, but with the Legislature, with all 104 members, to help them understand why we're doing what we're doing and to get buy-in from them. And hopefully as we move into a legislative session, we can come to agreement on the thorniest issues. I suspect there will be some [issues] where we don't have agreement. And that's OK. There's a process for that.

Unfortunately, here in Utah, we've kind of taken a passive approach to that for decades — that, you know, if the governor vetoes your bill, it means he hates you or there's something wrong with you. And if the legislature overrides that veto, it means the governor is weak. And that's just crazy. This is the system. It's how it's built. It's supposed to work that way. And we're going to work every way we can to build consensus. That's who I am. That's what I've always done. But that doesn't mean we'll always be able to build consensus. And so we go through the process and that's a good thing.

SH: You've listed education as a big priority for your administration. What's a measurable, concrete goal that you want to accomplish in the next four years with education? And what's your plan to do that?

SC: The first would be the teacher shortage that we see. And that's incredibly problematic. And as I've talked to teachers, there are really two reasons behind that. One ... is making sure that we are increasing teacher compensation so that it becomes more of a destination occupation. Those are things that we will be able to measure. What is the turnover rate? Are we paying them more? [The other reason] surprised me a little bit. And it's that we're overregulating teachers in the classroom. We've taken the joy out of teaching as we list everything they have to do every day and high stakes testing and school grading. So we will be working to try to roll back many of those unnecessary regulations and burdens on teachers.

[Another] thing that we're focused on is around equity in education. And this one's a little harder. Our constitution guarantees a quality education to all students, regardless of zip code, geographic location or affluency. And I just don't believe that's what’s happening. This is a really hard conversation to have to look at how we fund education. But it's an important conversation. And it's one I've already started with legislative leadership. I've actually been pleasantly surprised at the appetite that there is to examining this and so that that's another area that will be a huge emphasis in an area of focus for my administration.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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