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Utah governor GOP primary voter guide: What to know about Spencer Cox and Phil Lyman

The Republican primary candidates for governor. On the left, incumbent Spencer Cox and his challenger Rep. Phil Lyman.
Utah Governor's Office
Utah House of Representatives
The Republican primary candidates for governor. On the left, incumbent Spencer Cox and his challenger Rep. Phil Lyman.

Utah’s current governor, Spencer Cox, wants a second term to lead the Beehive State. He faces a right flank challenge from state Rep. Phil Lyman who has challenged the governor on several fronts including Cox’s Disagree Better campaign, immigration and economic issues like housing and the state budget.

We asked Utahns what mattered to them during the primary season and that feedback informed this primary voter guide.

Methodology: An identical survey was sent to both campaigns. Provided answers were fact-checked prior to the publication of this guide and we included links and/or editor’s notes on our findings. If a candidate did not respond, KUER leaned on public statements, interviews and additional reporting to provide voters with useful information. Candidates appear in alphabetical order by surname.

What motivates you to run for office? (Ireland, Weber County)

  • Cox: I first entered public service years ago when I was appointed to the Fairview City Council. The incumbent left mid-term and, in a town of 1,200, that meant it was my turn to serve. I learned that I enjoyed working with others to solve our town’s problems, from restoring a well-loved community dance hall to literally putting out fires. That drive to solve problems continues in my role as governor, and over the past three years we’ve worked hard to find solutions – from saving the Great Salt Lake to increasing teacher pay to fighting federal overreach. In Utah, we give back and public service is one way I can give back to the people of this great state.
  • Lyman: 128 years ago, on January 4, 1896, Utah became a state. What does that mean? What is a state?

    If we don’t understand personhood, parenthood, and statehood, we are not likely to understand what it means to have a state. We won't understand what it means to have a republican form of government, as each state is guaranteed by the Constitution Article IV.

    And what does it look like if States don’t believe in statehood? They defer to the Federal government, they falsely believe that the federal government is the sovereign, not the people - that the supremacy clause makes the federal the master and the states the servants. They believe that power is top-down. They believe that money is top-down. That is what our founding mothers and fathers left. They rejected the vassal states of Europe and England.

    And once government fails to recognize that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed, they get everything wrong after that.

    I plan to restore respect for individual rights, for parental rights, and I plan to tell the federal government to stay in their lane with respect to Utah's Statehood.

What is your top priority if elected? (Carol, Utah County)

  • Cox: Utah is ranked the best state in the nation for economic strength, economic mobility, social capital, happiness and the list goes on. The one thing that keeps me up at night is the cost of housing, but we know what the solution is: We need to build more homes. We’ve set a goal to build 35,000 new starter homes in the next five years and here’s how. First, we worked with the Legislature to create an innovative finance tool to help cities and developers pay for the infrastructure that new homes need. Second, we worked with cities to streamline their zoning and building permitting processeswhich will speed up construction and bring costs down. Third, we created a new housing fund that will help small- and medium-sized developers finance their projects to build more homes. Fourth, we modified the state’s building code to allow more modular homes, which will especially spur home building in our rural communities. Fifth, we created a new funding tool that will focus on infill development and another that will help pay for transportation solutions that reduce congestion. All of these actions will help bring down the cost of housing and help more Utahns become homeowners.
  • Lyman: Government is supposed to function within its proper lanes. I would ensure that the executive branch in Utah stays in its powerful lane and does not interfere with the legislative branch and vice versa. I would also ensure that the federal government stays in its lane and that Utah pushes back on unconstitutional mandates. Similarly, I would push power to the counties to function as the government closest to the people. In Federalist 51, James Madison wrote, "division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people, is first divided between two distinct governments [state and federal], and then the portion allotted to each, subdivided among distinct and separate departments … The different governments will control each other; at the same time that each will be controlled by itself. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people."

    My top priority would be to restore proper order to Utah's government at all levels. 

If elected, how do you plan to represent all Utahns, not just those of your own party? (Alison, Salt Lake County)

  • Cox: As governor, I know that I represent all 3.4 million people who call Utah home, not just those in the GOP. That’s why I work with those from both parties on issues that matter. I’ve worked closely with both Republicans and Democrats to ensure that our streets and parks are safe and our homeless friends are getting the treatment they need. I’ve also worked across the aisle to secure the Olympic bid for the 2034 Winter Games and to address water issues, housing, education and so much more. As chair of the National Governors Association, I launched an initiative to reduce partisan animosity by learning to disagree without hating each other. I stand firm on conservative values, but I work hard to make sure partisanship doesn’t get in the way of solving problems.
  • Lyman: Individual freedom is central to my political beliefs, and it is not a partisan concept. I have often said that no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, freedom means freedom. Government is too big, and tends to intervene in people's lives too much. Both parties are guilty of freely stepping on the rights of people. Letting people make their own decisions is key to representing all people regardless of party affiliation.

What do you plan to do to save the Great Salt Lake and protect air quality? (Claudia, Weber County)

  • Cox: We worked with the Legislature to dramatically change Utah water laws to encourage more conservation and I’m pleased to report our coordinated efforts – plus two great snow years – are paying off. We signed legislation that adjusts mineral extraction when lake levels are low. We also changed the law sofarmers can sell or send any extra water downstream without losing their water rights. We’ve increased planning for long-term water projects along with funding to improve water infrastructure. We’ve encouraged Utahns to conserve and install waterwise landscaping and they’ve responded, saving thousands of gallons of water every year. 

    On air quality, the number one contributing factor continues to be our own tailpipes and our homes. With the adoption of Tier 3 fuels and the voluntary adoption of electric vehicles, Utah continues to improve its air quality. I am not a believer in big-government mandates on Utah homeowners and will continue to focus my efforts on supporting common-sense incentives to reduce each of our own individual contributions to our air quality challenge. 

  • Lyman: We live in a desert and water will always be a concern. The situation with the Great Salt Lake, however, is a manufactured crisis to justify centralization of Utah's water. If we want to fill the Great Salt Lake, it will be through forest management. A healthy forest will produce as much as 40% more water. Yet Utah is prohibited from managing the forests within our borders because of dysfunctional federal policies. By pushing back on federal restrictions on our forests, Utah could have healthy, vibrant forests, and a dramatic increase in water to fill our lakes and reservoirs.

    [Editor's note: Lyman has been a supporter of forest thinning as a way to conserve water. While some studies have shown small gains in water yields after forest thinning, KUER was unable to find evidence of a 40% gain. Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service says it manages national forests and watersheds in the state in concert with state and local agencies.]

What solutions do you have to make it more affordable to live in Utah? (Chandler, Utah County)

  • Cox: The problem of inflation is not unique to Utahns. Americans from blue states and red states continue to experience enormous economic challenges due to the dysfunction and financial malpractice we see in the federal government. Utah balances its budget every year and maintains a AAA bond rating– a higher rating than the U.S. government. Think about that for a minute. Investors believe that the State of Utah is a safer investment than the federal government. While not a cure-all for the problems associated with this inflation caused at the federal level, I’m proud to have partnered with the Legislature to return to Utah taxpayers the largest tax cut in Utah history – $1.3 billion.
  • Lyman: Our policies have created the housing market that we have in Utah. Huge subsidies to build high density housing have resulted in all the resources going to large housing complexes, leaving the single-family home industry short of supply. At the same time, because of the subsidies, both federal and state, the builders have found it very lucrative to build high-density homes. Rather than having a surplus of homes and declining prices, we have overpriced homes even at the lowest level. By stopping the subsidies, obtaining more land currently held by the federal government, and reducing regulation, we would see home priced drop dramatically.

    [Editor’s Note: While Utah and the federal government offer some incentives to build higher-density housing, especially around transit, a 2023 Legislative Audit found that most of the land in Utah’s largest cities is currently zoned for single-family detached homes. In the last two years, single-family home construction in Utah did drop more than apartments and townhomes, but the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute attributes the slowdown to a jump in interest rates.]

Where do you stand on government involvement in reproductive rights? (Rhonda, Iron County)

  • Cox: I am unequivocally pro-life and I support efforts to reduce and prevent abortions. I signed HB467 which limits the expansion of abortion clinics in the state.
  • Lyman: If, by reproductive rights we are talking about abortion. The question is really, at what point does a fetus become an entity with its own individual rights? I believe that happens at conception and that some level of personhood is due the unborn. That said, I am not a fan of over-criminalizing women who are faced with difficult decisions. The law should be clear, but the consequences of violating the law must consider proportionality.

How do you intend to solve issues with infrastructure in Utah, such as roads and public buildings? (Dylan, county not provided)

  • Cox: It’s a simple formula: when investment in infrastructure precedes growth, quality of life stays high. If growth precedes infrastructure, the quality of life goes down every single time. I am a firm believer in maintaining high-quality infrastructure – water, sewer, roads, etc. That’s why our administration has invested so much in infrastructure over the last three and a half years.
  • Lyman: Lyman did not provide an answer. However, in a December statement on social media site X, formerly Twitter, Lyman said he was not in favor of growth “simply for the sake of growth,” but believes the government should not necessarily step in to stop growth, either. He advocates for less concentration of resources in the Wasatch Front. His voting record on infrastructure funding has been mixed, with no votes on things like Infrastructure Financing Districts and plans to make way for a Major League Baseball stadium, but yes votes on things like the First Home Investment Act. He says he will support and protect Utah’s energy infrastructure.

What will you do to support public education? (CJ, Salt Lake County)

  • Cox: Our children are our most precious asset and that’s why our schools are so important. Parents need and want to be involved in the education of their children. I increased parental choice in how their tax dollars are spent and where their children are educated. Utah's teachers are the best in the nation. We need to ensure they can keep teaching. That's why I signed legislation that secures a $6,000 permanent pay increase for Utah teachers.
  • Lyman: School Parent Councils are the key. More power needs to be given to the local schools and less to the school districts and the school boards. If resources were allocated according to the function of local parent councils, parents would be more inclined to keep their kids in public education. Short of that, I support backpack funding where the money follows the student.

Candidates talk about cutting taxes. What taxes would you cut and what do you see as the impact of making those cuts? (Janet, Weber County)

  • Cox: Prior to my term as governor, the largest tax cut in Utah history was $250 million. During my first four years in office, we have cut taxes by $1.3 billion – the largest tax cut in Utah history. I’m also proud to have led efforts to cut taxes on some of our most vulnerable Utahns including Utah veterans and low-income seniors. Gov. Cox is also supportive of the effort on the ballot this November to eliminate the state sales tax on food. One of the benefits of Utah’s strong economy is that we can return more hard-earned dollars to Utah taxpayers.

    [Editor’s Note: KUER was unable to confirm if the largest tax cut in Utah history had been $250 million.]

  • Lyman: If Utah would embrace production and extraction, and if we would exercise the jurisdiction that is rightfully ours under our statehood enabling act, we would see a dramatic increase in severance tax that could be used to offset any number of taxes. We should immediately stop taxing Social Security, and we should stop the sales tax on food.

    [Editor’s Note: As of 2022, mining and mineral extraction made up more than 10% of the state’s GDP.]

What does “unity” mean to you? (Avree, Weber County)

  • Cox: The chief problem of today isn’t that we’re not united, it’s that we’re often incapable of even talking to each other and debating key issues. This is true in halls of Congress in Washington D.C. and even around family kitchen tables in everyday homes across the country. Thankfully Utah has not succumbed to this same degree of divisiveness, but I worry that we may not be immune forever. My National Governors Association initiative on Disagreeing Better encourages political discourse without shouting down each other. We need to be able to debate issues, maintain our core principles, and not come away hating each other.
  • Lyman: Unity is the state of being joined together as a unit rather than as separate parts. We should be united in our adoption of laws, and in our adherence to the constitution, but we should be individual in our choice and accountability.

KUER's Saige Miller, Caroline Ballard and Jim Hill contributed to this guide along with independent fact checker Megan Swann.

This voter guide was produced in collaboration with PBS Utah and America Amplified.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.