Election 2020: Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox on Rural-Urban Divide, COVID-19, and Housing Costs
Utah has the first open seat for governor this year since 2004 and there are four candidates vying for the Republican nomination. In the lead up to the June 30th primary, KUER is bringing voters a conversation with each of them.
Politics reporter Sonja Hutson spoke with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox about his vision for Utah.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sonja Hutson: What sets you apart from the other candidates?
Spencer Cox: As the only candidate that lives off the Wasatch Front, I have a unique understanding about rural Utah, but I've also lived on the Wasatch Front. And, of course, I've worked on the Wasatch Front as lieutenant governor over the past six-and-a-half years. I believe I have a deep understanding of how to bridge that growing divide between rural Utah and urban and suburban Utah.
I also have local government experience, having served as a city councilman, a mayor and a county commissioner. I have a deep appreciation and understanding of the power of local government and how the decisions that we make in Salt Lake and on Capitol Hill often impact, sometimes unintentionally, the local governments and local citizens. I think that those two things set me apart in ways from the other candidates running for governor that are critical for any governor moving forward.
SH: Obviously, top of mind for so many voters is the coronavirus. One of your fellow candidates, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes in particular, has criticized the state's response to the pandemic — saying that these mandatory closures of certain businesses, limiting which state parks people can go to — have infringed on people's liberties. As lieutenant governor, you've obviously been deeply involved in the state's response. How do you respond to that criticism?
SC: Well, look, we understand this is the silly season. It's politics. Too many people feel like they have to tear others down in order to gain traction or get elected. It has been a tragedy and a travesty for so many. We know that we've had over 100 Utahns that have lost their lives now, and we have had tens of thousands of Utahns that have lost their jobs.
I'm very proud of the way that people have responded. We are one of only seven states that didn't have a statewide shelter in place or lockdown order. But not only that, our health outcomes are better than other states as we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the nation. Utah, again, economically led the nation. We're one of the first states now where the number of people coming off of unemployment is greater than the people who are filing for unemployment and that's good news for everyone in Utah.
SH: Obviously, the next governor will be tasked with helping the state recover economically from this pandemic. If you're elected, how would you approach that in January when taking office?
SC: This is going to be critical moving forward. Between now and January is very important. But in the long term, we want to get back to normal. But is that good enough? Can we get back to something better than normal? And there are some lessons that we're learning from this pandemic. We've been reliant — on China especially — but [on] overseas manufacturing for far too long. We've seen how those supply chains have been disrupted. Of course, the Chinese have been bad actors now for several years. And we have the ability right now to bring much of that manufacturing back home. Utah is well positioned to bring those jobs back here to help build up our economy and help the citizens of Utah to really thrive as we lead out of this pandemic.
A couple other areas that I think are critical as well: something that I've been working on [is] telework and telecommuting. I started a program a year ago here in the state. We had 130 employees that worked from home for six months, three to five days a week. We found out that they were happier, we were taking cars off the road, pollution out of the air, and their productivity went up 22%. I believe that this pandemic will hasten that activity, not just at the state of Utah, but with the private sector as well. And that's good for rural Utah: now people can apply for these jobs who don't live on the Wasatch Front. Those are some of the economic ideas that we have that will help us coming out of this recession, out of this pandemic, and allow Utah to really lead the nation in economic activity and economic recovery.
SH: Another economic pressure that Utahns are feeling is the cost of housing, which has really soared in Utah in recent years. According to a 2013 report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, one in eight households is cost burdened by their housing, which means they pay more than 50% of their income toward it. The report blames a shortage of units and the fact that wages have not kept up with rising housing costs. How would you address this issue?
SC: There's a couple of things. The best decisions are made at the local level and that shouldn't change. However, we are investing in infrastructure and there's a little formula that I use all the time. It's proven to be correct every single time. And that is: where infrastructure precedes growth and density, the quality of life stays high. So it's really important that we focus that density around the places where we do have infrastructure, particularly mass transit.
The second one is government regulation. A large percentage of housing costs come because of government regulation and impact fees. And then finally, we have to look at some innovation around the way we finance housing. There are some ideas out there in the private sector for innovation to allow young families and first time buyers to get into homeownership.