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Gov. Cox gives state employees leave to help with flood response

Gov. Spencer Cox holds his monthly news conference at PBS Utah in the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 16, 2023.
Laura Seitz
Deseret News, pool
Gov. Spencer Cox holds his monthly news conference at PBS Utah in the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 16, 2023.

Gov. Spencer Cox has issued an executive order allowing state employees to take paid leave to help with flood prevention and relief. Cox made the announcement during his March news conference.

Cox said flooding has historically been the top disaster risk in the state. With above normal snowpack levels and recent rain storms, flooding concern has increased. Two men were recently found dead after a slot canyon in Kane County flooded and the waterfalls at Gunlock State Park are flowing, which is rare.

Due to the increased risk, Cox sent letters to every mayor in the state and encouraged them to make sure emergency plans are in place.

The executive order will give all state employees up to 8 hours of voluntary administrative leave between now and the end of August to help with flood mitigation efforts, like filling sandbags.

“We want an army of residents ready, and I know we will have volunteers joining them from across the state as they're called upon to do so.”

Cox said there will definitely be flooding this spring and he asked Utahns to use common sense, stay safe and recommended they get flood insurance.

“It's very important to keep children away from fast moving water. Please do not drive in flooded streets, the potential for drowning is real. Stay alert. Listen to the news and weather alerts when storms are headed your way, especially if you are in the outdoors.”

Cox thinks Utah is more prepared for flooding this year than during the flood of 1983, when State Street in Salt Lake City turned into a river.

The Great Salt Lake

While Cox is concerned about flooding, he is also thankful for what all of this precipitation will mean for Utah’s reservoirs and the Great Salt Lake.

He said the lake is up 2 feet from its historic low in November and could rise to 5 feet, which he attributed to Mother Nature and structural changes. The governor also thanked the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for donating about 20,000 acre-feet of water to the Great Salt Lake. He said they started working on the donation about a year ago and it is only possible because of changes the Utah Legislature has made to water policy.

“We're incredibly grateful for the church for their generosity and their commitment to preserving this critical ecosystem. We are working with other possible donors as well, and we'll have more information as those plans are crystallized and finalized.”

Cox though dismissed criticisms that the Legislature is relying on Mother Nature to get water into the Great Salt Lake and taking their foot off the pedal when it comes to solving the state’s water problems.

“I've yet to hear a single person in leadership say ‘we're good. We don't have to do anymore.’ What I'm hearing is ‘we're not good, but we're on a path to be better.’”

During the final week of the 2023 legislative session, Sen. Scott Sandall told reporters that lawmakers had an emergency plan in place to get more water into the lake, but said “Mother Nature really helped us out. We didn’t have to pull that lever for emergency use.”

Cox said lawmakers passed bills and allocated funding to help the drying Great Salt Lake, but those things will not immediately take effect. In his opinion, one of the most important bills passed during the session is the one creating the position of Great Salt Lake Commissioner.

“That position is going to be very helpful because we have lots of people working on this, but they're working in silos.”

Social media

Cox plans to sign recently passed bills regulating social media for minors. He said the state is still working out how they will be implemented and will be working with social media companies and third-party verification companies over the next year.

“Will there be legal challenges? Absolutely,” Cox said. “I'm not going to back down from a potential legal challenge when these companies are killing our kids. And so we're ready and willing to move forward with those legal challenges.”

Cox thinks social media companies will lose in court and anticipates that other states, as well as the federal government, will follow Utah’s lead.

Bills awaiting signature

Cox has already signed hundreds of bills into law and has until March 23 to sign or veto what’s left. He told reporters he’s still finishing up the review process, but does not have any bills that he plans to veto.

Comunidades Unidas, an organization that focuses on empowering the Latino community, has called on Cox to veto HB209, which would require students to present a birth certificate, state-issued identification document or federally recognized identification document in order to participate in extracurricular activities. The group is concerned it could prevent undocumented students from participating.

Originally, Rep. Jordan Teuscher’s bill only allowed a birth certificate to be used, but he changed it to include state or federally-recognized identifying documents after hearing some concerns.

“The purpose of this bill was actually to allow more participation in sports, not less,” Cox said. “[The] purpose of the bill is to allow homeschool students and others to be able to participate in organized sports.”

Cox said the documentation does not need to be from the United States and that the Utah High School Activities Association does not think it will prevent students from participating.

While Cox is planning on signing the bill, he said he will be working with Teuscher over the next month to review the bill and talk with schools statewide.

“And if there are students that would be impacted by this, we will call a special session to come in and change the bill.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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