Utah voters have overwhelmingly elected a new Governor and Lt. Governor who will take office on January 4, 2021.

The inaugurations of new governors have typically been grand affairs with military flag ceremonies, speeches, choirs singing anthems, statewide elected officers taking their Oaths of Office, while the Capitol rotunda and balconies are filled with thousands of onlookers wanting to be part of the historic event.  However, due to COVID-19, the inauguration of Spencer Cox and Deidre Henderson is expected to be more of a virtual, online experience. 

During my nearly 44 years at the Utah Taxpayers Association I have worked closely with seven Utah governors: Scott Matheson, Norman Bangerter, Michael Leavitt, Olene Walker, Jon Huntsman, Gary Herbert and now, Spencer Cox. 

Norm Bangerter’s “hands-on” approach

Each of the governors with whom I’ve worked had unique talents, goals, and abilities. Two of them, Bangerter and Walker, had served many years in the Legislature.  House Speaker Norm Bangerter served five two-year terms in the House of Representatives and yet, interestingly, his eight years as Governor saw perhaps the rockiest relationship with the Legislature in part because of the extremely erratic economy and budgets in the 80s.  Due to his prior legislative experience, Bangerter knew how to count votes. He would call legislators on their floor phones in the middle of close votes urging them to switch their votes on tax increase issues important to him.  This prompted legislative leadership to prevent all incoming calls on floor phones. 

Olene Walker’s veto threat improved legislative processes

Similarly, Governor Olene Walker, served four terms in the Legislature and became Majority Whip before becoming Lt. Governor, and later Governor.. She threatened to veto the entire school funding bill in the final days of the general session because the legislature refused to include a tax increase to fund her early reading program.  If there had been a veto, the session would have ended without an education funding bill at all, so she then would have called the Legislature into special session where there would have been little choice but to accede to her tax hike demand.  Consequently, a new process was created through which the Legislature now passes “base budgets” at the first of the session which ensures that the Legislature is still in session during the time limit for vetoing appropriations bills. This early base budget passage ensures the basic state programs are funded if there is a disagreement between the Governor and Legislature or between the House and Senate over new money appropriations. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was projected that revenues would be drastically reduced, the special budget cutting session was able to simply revert to the base budget with minor adjustments.  

Mike Leavitt knew how to work with legislators

Without a doubt, the Governor I worked with who had the best relationship with the Legislature was Mike Leavitt.  Before officially declaring his candidacy, he met individually with every sitting legislator.  One legislator, for example, told me Leavitt hiked Provo’s Rock Canyon with him as they discussed issues and the legislator then agreed to support him. While in office, Governor Leavitt regularly invited legislators to accompany him as he travelled in and out of the state.  When he was invited to be the keynote speaker at a New Mexico GOP fundraiser, a small group of legislators were invited to board the state plane and attend the event with him. 

A fellow Senator who loved golf was invited to accompany Governor Leavitt to a speaking engagement in Palm Desert, CA after which they played a round of golf before flying back to Utah. Legislators were not reluctant to tell of their trips with the Governor. We were both first elected in 1992, and although Mike Leavitt and I agreed on almost every issue, at one point I publicly disagreed with him on a significant issue.  About a week later I was invited to accompany him on a trip out of town which ended up being perhaps the least glamorous trip any legislator had experienced with the Governor that year. 

We rode together from the Capitol in the backseat of a black Lincoln Town Car driven by a security person to the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility located at the Tooele Army Depot. There we donned hazmat clothing including a gas mask which were fitted and tested in control booths to be sure we couldn’t smell the banana oil vapor. Walking through the mustard gas incineration facility, I wondered if I was invited there because of my negative comment. I didn’t ask. Afterall, I truly did enjoy the one-on-one time to bend the governor’s ear.

Governors Huntsman & Herbert

The Huntsman/Herbert administration came into power with an agenda to make Utah the best economy in the nation. And they succeeded, as evidenced by the fact that Utah has ranked #1 13 years straight as having the Best Economic Outlook by ALEC’s Annual Rich States Poor States ranking.  Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. succeeded in getting the legislature to pass the biggest tax cut package in history, including cutting Utah’s individual and corporate income tax rate from a graduated 7% top rate to a 5% flat rate. This resulted in massive economic growth and enabled Utah to weather the 2008 economic collapse better than other states. He also restructured the state’s economic development effort and formed the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in his office where he could directly guide its efforts.  

Governor Gary Herbert expanded on these pro-growth policies and supported expansion of Utah’s rainy day funds to ensure stability during tough economic times. As a result of sound legislative budget practices and Herbert’s support of additional “working rainy day funds” Utah has been able to adjust to the severe revenue reductions from the current pandemic better than any other state and without massive cuts to essential services such as education.  

What can we expect from Governor Cox?

Before being elected as Governor, Spencer J. Cox served in more elected offices than any Governor before him: city council, mayor, county commissioner and state representative, and most recently, Lt. Governor. Representative Spencer Cox served in the Legislature only ten months before Governor Gary Herbert tapped him to fill the vacancy when Lt. Governor Greg Bell resigned to take a position in the private sector.  Lt. Governor Spencer Cox showed for the last two years that he was willing to visit nearly all of Utah’s 248 cities and towns so that he could learn first hand what Utahns were experiencing, how they were succeeding and why they were struggling.  Instead of formal meetings in town halls, he worked side by side with citizens on community service projects.

The things Cox learned during hundreds of community engagements seemed to create an understanding and empathy for the diversity of life that exists in a state which appears from a distance to be a homogeneous culture. Governor-elect Cox displayed political acumen recently when a group of protesters opposed to COVID mask mandates showed up at his home in Sanpete County. He greeted them with homemade cookies and hot chocolate, saying anyone willing to come all the way to remote Fairview deserves his respect.

Leaders in the Cox administration tell me he is already engaging legislators in small groups and virtually to lay out his plans and listen to theirs. He is also expected to be known by how accessible he is to the public, business community, interest groups and local elected officials.

Cox on Economic Development

While he acknowledges that Utah already sits among the top ten states in ratings of Higher Education, Public Education, Job Growth, Best Places for Business, and Economic Outlook, Spencer Cox is committed to improving Utah’s economy and rural job growth. He says a prosperous economy will follow policies that keep taxes low and regulations to a minimum.

He said he wants to redesign our state tax code with an emphasis on reducing complexity. He believes free market capitalism has done more to eradicate real poverty than any other socioeconomic system in the history of the world. Conversely, incentives to lure corporate investment inherently changes the playing field in free markets and can lead to governments—not markets—picking winners and losers.

Governor-elect Cox says Utah should be the leader in recovering and rebuilding from the COVID economic slump. The new normal has shown that people in many types of jobs can effectively work and live in any part of the state. Utah has led the nation in creating safe harbors for independent contractors in the gig economy to have the flexibility to work when, where, and how much they choose. The Utah legislature will be considering legislation in the 2021 session to ensure that online platform knowledge workers can enjoy the freedom of independent contractor status to work anywhere and anytime they choose.

Spencer Cox has made a commitment to ensuring that rural Utah will flourish and be even stronger after COVID recovery.  This of course, should include capacity building to expand Utah exports to growing markets abroad and improve rural Utah’s ability to welcome tourists.  Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, visitors from Canada and China alone spent nearly $300 million in the Beehive State.  This is more than tourism dollars spent by tourists from the next ten countries combined. Ten year export data concluding in 2018 revealed that Utah service sector exports to China grew nearly 250% while services to other countries grew approximately 75%.  Education and Tourism are the top Utah service exports to China and to other growing markets. Let’s hope the Cox administration works to get international students and tourists to return to Utah rather than other western states once the COVID travel restrictions are no longer needed.

Education Equalization

As one who has worked to incrementally overcome the gross inequities in public education spending per student based on where students live, I am thrilled that Governor-elect Cox is Utah’s first Governor committed to permanently correcting these funding inequities. Here are his own words: “Today, the lowest income school districts in Utah pay higher taxes while receiving less than half the funding per student as compared to the wealthiest school districts in the state. That disparity means fewer resources and less opportunity for children in low income areas.” He said, “Addressing this inequity isn’t just about tax policy or education reform. It is a moral imperative that strikes at the heart of Utah values.”

Cox and Legislative Leadership

It’s interesting and fortunate that while the Cox administration makes significant changes in those serving in leadership roles in the executive branch, elections for majority leadership positions in the legislative branch, both the House and Senate, were unchanged in the caucus votes held the same week as the general election, something I don’t remember happening before with a new Governor. This should ensure stability and predictability as the new administration gets seated, being already familiar with legislative leaders. What’s more, in spite of Spencer Cox’s own short tenure in the legislature, with 8-year Senate veteran Deidre Henderson as Lt. Governor, the Cox/Henderson team is well-prepared to successfully move Utah forward.