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Gov. Spencer Cox says he’ll veto Utah’s latest school voucher bill

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during the PBS Utah Governor’s Monthly News Conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.
Kristin Murphy
Deseret News, pool
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during the PBS Utah Governor’s Monthly News Conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

During his February monthly PBS Utah press conference, Gov. Spencer Cox weighed in on several state issues, including legislative efforts to save the Great Salt Lake, public school curriculum transparency legislation, school vouchers and the latest version of a transgender sports bill.

Great Salt Lake

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville rolled out a $40 million bill Wednesday, HB 410, aimed at saving and restoring the Great Salt Lake. Cox said that’s “a start.”

State wildlife officials would use that money to issue a one-time grant to a project that maintains or increases water flows and supports the lake’s natural infrastructure.

“The steps we're taking now are the critical steps and really laying the framework so that we can do more of this in the future,” Cox said. “It’s not just the $40 million that's important. It sets up a framework that allows additional dollars from nonprofits and private organizations to couple with the state dollars and to help get water rights that will allow additional flow to come into the Great Salt Lake.”

But some environmental advocates argue the legislation doesn’t go far enough. Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council called the bill a “band-aid” and not a permanent solution because the water rights will expire in a decade.

“If protection isn’t permanent, it’s not really protection,” Frankel said in a statement.

School Vouchers

A school voucher bill, HB 331, is cruising for a veto if it lands on Cox’s desk. He said he supports vouchers, but only when public schools are adequately funded and they’re not right now.

“With the price of housing, with inflation happening right now, I don't want to live in a state where teachers can't buy a home,” he said. “When teachers are making $60,000 a year to start, I will fully support vouchers. I'm all in on vouchers. But we have a long way to go before we get there.”

Public School Curriculum

Several “curriculum transparency” bills are making their way through the Legislature. SB 114 requires local school boards to approve instructional materials like textbooks and classroom activities and HB 234 requires teachers to post learning materials online.

Before he took office, Cox said “we've taken the joy out of teaching” and he wanted to remove regulations on educators.

“There are lots of bills out there that seem to be kind of pummeling or piling on with our teachers right now,” he said. “I just hope the Legislature will be very careful and very cautious in the way they message those bills as they're looking for compromises or ways to move those bills forward — that they will do so in a way that that is respectful of our teachers and that we're doing our very best to take care of our teachers.”

However, Cox said it is also important for parents to be involved in their child’s education and know what they’re being taught.

“Parents absolutely have the right — it's foundational — to be involved in their child's education,” he said.

He stopped short of saying whether he supported or opposed the current versions of the bills.

Transgender Sports

Cox said he’s hopeful that negotiations on a controversial transgender school sports bill will continue and both sides will be able to find more common ground.

When the legislation was first proposed last year, it was an all-out ban on transgender girls playing sports in Utah public schools. Cox adamantly opposed that bill and made some emotional comments about how it would harm the mental health of transgender kids.

The latest version of the legislation creates a commission to evaluate the issue on an athlete-by-athlete basis. Under HB 11, a commission decides if a transgender student can play a sport by weighing physical characteristics like body mass, hip-to-knee ratio and wingspan.

“It doesn't give everyone what they want, which probably means it's a good step in the right direction,” Cox said. “We don't have support from both sides yet, but they're signaling that they're close if there's maybe a couple changes that can be made.”

But, he did not say he would need organizations on both sides to endorse the legislation in order for him to sign it into law, instead he said he was “keeping [his] mind open.”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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