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Governor's News Conference

March 21, 2022

"I suspect that we will end up with our reservoirs filled to a higher degree than we did last year, once the spring runoff is occurred, so, that's positive news. We're seeing the moisture content of the soil is much, much higher than it was last year, which means runoff will actually get there." Governor Cox

ANNOUNCER: PBS Utah presents The Governor's Monthly News Conference, an exchange between Utah reporters and governor Spencer Cox.

GOVERNOR COX: Good morning, everyone. Welcome, it's great to see all of you again. Thank you for coming out today. I know it's been a busy time, especially in our office as we are working our way through the legislature's bills. They all go on vacation and I have 20 days to review all 513 of those bills. So, we still feel like we are very much in the middle of the legislative session and looking forward to finish things up next week.

I'm guessing you may have so, me questions about legislation, I'm happy to answer, but just before we go there, I wanted to drive your attention to a recent report that came out by the nonpartisan group called Trust for America. They release their annual Ready or Not report this week, which places Utah on the top tier of states ready for various emergencies. And we so, appreciate, obviously we've gone through a pandemic, there are lots of other emergencies that can happen in a state, and we appreciate those at the local level and the state level who work so, hard to make sure that we are prepared.

There are three different groupings, there's a top tier grouping of states, a middle tier, and then a low tier and Utah was in the top tier. And so, we, again, we're excited to know that we are continually preparing for whatever comes our way. I will also, just wish everyone a very happy St. Patrick's Day, deeply disappointed in some of you for not being very festive in the way you're dressed today and we'll expect more, and I have to give a shout out to my favorite person on St. Patrick's Day, it's my dad's birthday today, so, happy birthday, dad. And with that, happy to answer any questions. 

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Governor, this morning a lawsuit was filed against the state, including your lieutenant governor, about redistricting by the League of Women Voters, accusing the state, essentially, of cracking and creating partisan gerrymandering maps, particularly for the congressional delegation, your response to it.

GOVERNOR COX: Well, we don't comment on active litigation. And so, you mentioned it was filed this morning, we have not been served, I have not seen that copy yet and so, we'll look forward to receiving that lawsuit, but this is something that we we've talked about at length and I'm not sure there's any more to add to the discussion out there.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: So, you defend what you did, signing this and-

GOVERNOR COX: Sure, yeah.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Accepting these congressional maps.

GOVERNOR COX: Yes.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: You don't believe this was gerrymandering?

GOVERNOR COX: Correct.

REPORTER: Governor, this morning, local-

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: I, sorry, lemme just add. Illegal gerrymandering.

REPORTER:  This morning local bid officials confirmed that Salt Lake City will not host the 2024 Republican National Convention. Your thoughts on that, it's the third time Salt Lake's bid has not come up with success.

GOVERNOR COX: Sure.

GOVERNOR COX: It's not really that surprising. Historically, both parties usually choose, usually choose battleground states or states where they need to make an effort and they're trying to recruit voters that will play a larger role in the presidential election. For the past many years Utah has not been one of those states. We are a very conservative state, a very Republican state, very reliable state. I'm actually more surprised that we keep getting mentioned in the top three or four than I am that we didn't get selected 

All of that being said, we are very good at this, that's why we keep getting mentioned, we're very good at hosting large events, welcoming the world here. We've certainly been able to prove that and show that with the Olympics, with NBA All-Star games, with big conventions, and so, those same articles did mention though, that we are a candidate for 2028. It is possible that the RNC will not wait to do this every four years, it's possible that they'll reward another state fairly soon. And so, we'll keep our hat in the running for 2028 and see what happens.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Governor, there's still a bill, you met with Senator McCay about House Bill 11, the Transgender Athletics bill, at this point you have yet to veto it, are you still planning to?

GOVERNOR COX: Well, one of the things that most people don't realize is, as I mentioned, legislators go on vacation right after the legislative session, so, does legislative staff and so, we don't actually get the bills. Most of the bills don't come until later in the week, I didn't even get most of those bills until late Tuesday so, I've only had them for a couple days. We're just going through them in order all 513 in the order that they come into our office, those bills that were passed the last night of the session were some of the last to come into our office so, we just haven't gotten there yet and I suspect we will in the next couple days but nothing has changed.

REPORTER: Governor, has your thinking shifted at all on that issue, on that bill?

GOVERNOR COX: No.

REPORTER: And could you explain to us, what would you say to your fellow conservatives who feel strongly about this issue, who think there should be a ban in place? What would your message be to them?

GOVERNOR COX: I think one of the important messages that maybe didn't get enough attention is that everyone knows what's going to happen. And that is that there will be a lawsuit and it will be a very expensive lawsuit. There was something very troubling that happened on the last night of the session, and this is what happens when you try to do things at the last minute, without any input, and that is that our school districts were removed from indemnification in that bill, and the Utah High School Athletic Association did not receive any indemnification, which they have been requesting for two years if this were to happen. It is very likely that this bill will bankrupt the Utah High School Athletic Association, and those are their words, not mine.

They've just been through a very costly lawsuit that burned through all of their reserves and so, all this bill does is invite a lawsuit. I mean, specifically talks about a lawsuit in the bill. And so, as conservatives it doesn't make any sense for us to just buy a lawsuit with no indemnification. So, if you want to bankrupt the Utah High School Athletic Association, if you want to cost the poor school district that ends up with this first lawsuit, which will happen, will have to spend millions of dollars because there is no governmental immunity for these types of lawsuits.

There was a lot of misinformation on the floor that night, people were asking questions about this, there were wrong answers given, then right answers were trying to be given correctly and all of this happened because it happened so, fast. School districts had to have an opportunity to weigh in and say, "look, if this is what you want to do, that's fine, but these lawsuits are ongoing across the country. Let's wait and see what happens with these lawsuits and not cost millions of dollars and not bankrupt the High School Athletic Association." And so, when people understand that, even people that are passionate about a ban, most of them come around and say, "yeah, this is a really bad bill and a really bad idea, and again, just terrible process."

REPORTER: Senator McCay told me he apologized to you during your meeting for not communicating with you ahead of time and for the process aspect of it. Do you want to comment on what he said and your thoughts on his apology?

GOVERNOR COX: Well, it just, I always appreciate an apology and I think his words speak for themselves.

KATIE MCKELLAR, DESERT NEWS: Governor, given that median single family home prices are nearing 600,000 in Salt Lake and Utah counties is the housing market getting out of hand?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, it is, there's no question about it. And that's true nationally, it's certainly true in the Intermountain West where we are seeing these extraordinarily high prices and that's why we passed several bills, I appreciate the legislature's work in helping to pass bills that we believe will increase supply and in turn, reduce housing prices. I do worry that there are market corrections coming. 

Certainly, there are trends that don't look great. We saw interest rates being raised for the first time in maybe three years, I'm trying to remember back how long it's been. Yesterday, the Fed has signaled that there will be multiple interest rate increases coming up. I am worried about that, I'm worried about what happens as all of this federal money, this kind of fake sugar high that we're on right now, makes its way through the system and what will happen on the backend of that. 

Of course, what we're seeing with inflation across the board. And I'm very worried with what's happening in Asia right now with the Coronavirus, because they have not done a good job of getting people vaccinated, especially in China, and this explosive growth that they're now seeing that we're going to see supply chains constrained again, especially the supply chains related to those markets and what that could mean, and not to mention war in Europe.

So, there are certainly economic clouds on the horizon that give us pause and that we're watching very closely and that we've been preparing for, and that's what I will say coming out of this legislative session.

Again, incredible collaboration on the budget, really thinking ahead, making sure that we're not overspending, that we're putting money away, saving for rainy days, and it is possible that those rainy days are ahead. 

So, that means, you know, as market corrections come, that hopefully we will see housing prices come down, but we hope that those housing prices can come down, not at the expense of the citizens of Utah, because of them being harmed economically.

JORDAN BURROWS, ABC4 NEWS: Governor, speaking of inflation, gas prices have risen more than a dollar from last month to now, now, according to AAA. What are you and your team actually doing to help Utahns at the pump?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, thank you, Jordan. So, we've had our budget teams working on this issue, trying to figure out what we can do. I actually met with the speaker and the President to have that very conversation yesterday, those conversations are ongoing and we will be meeting with lots of different people, that participate in the supply chain, when it comes specifically to gas and petroleum products and seeing what we can do as a state to alleviate the pressure. And again, more broadly than just gas prices, this inflation that's been happening for quite a while now is deeply concerning.

Gas prices are a part of it, but people are feeling it in other ways as well, they're feeling it with commodities, food prices, of course, rents and housing that we've already talked about. Automobiles, there are several different areas where we're feeling it, but the one thing about gas prices is that it impacts everything else as well, right? Because we use petroleum products to get food to the stores and to move automobiles to where they need to be in the country. So, there is a compounding effect that happens with gas prices and so, we'll continue to see what we can do to help alleviate that.

REPORTER: So, you kind of, Governor-

REPORTER: Governor, do you support forgiving the gas tax while prices are so, high?

GOVERNOR COX: So, that's one of the things that we're looking at and one of the things that we're talking about. It's a little more complicated in Utah than other places, because the money that we have to spend as government is not fungible, we can't move it around like other states can. The tax on gasoline goes directly to UDOT to pay for their employees. And so, if I were to unilaterally remove the gas tax, I would also, have to lay off all of UDOT's employees, which is not great, that's a really bad out idea. Filling potholes, pushing snow, hopefully we have more snow coming, those types of things. And so, if we were to do something like that, it's much more complicated and it would mean bringing the legislature back into session and figuring out how to move dollars around in a way that is very constitutional, very difficult and potentially unconstitutional, because we have constitutional limits on the ability to move money around as well.

So, those are some of the things that was part of the discussion this year about the Education Fund and income tax. And so, it's a lot more complicated than some states where they can just say, "oh, look, we're just going to forgive the gas tax and we can pay for that some other way," we don't have the ability to do that here in the State of Utah and that's why we have to talk about lots of different things and see if that is one potential way, but are there other ways that we can look at as well?

REPORTER: California's considering a rebate of about $400 for its residents to make up for higher gas costs, is that something you're considering?

GOVERNOR COX: That's an interesting proposal. Like I said, everything's on the table, we haven't specifically discussed that, we did pass a $200 million tax cut that will be going back to people. I had proposed a type of rebate, a food tax rebate of sorts that did not get through the legislature and so, I don't know if that's something the legislature would be open to, but certainly worth discussing.

JORDAN BURROWS, ABC4 NEWS: Can you be more specific? You keep saying you're having talks, you're doing things.

GOVERNOR COX: Yes.

JORDAN BURROWS, ABC4 NEWS: Can you elaborate on what those things are?

GOVERNOR COX: Yes, so, we are also, talking about what can we do to increase production and work with suppliers to lower the rates here. What can we do to increase production both in the raw materials portion of that, the refining portion of that? So, we're putting together a meeting to talk with the petroleum industry here in the State of Utah, we hope to do that sometime in the next week. And we want to look at every point along the process and what that means. And again, just, you know, just removing the gas tax doesn't necessarily completely lower the cost of gasoline either, because it's priced at the rack, or taxed at the rack, excuse me. And so, we would need the participation of gas stations and suppliers as well, even if that was the direction we went. So, there are lots of people that play a role in this process and we want to have those conversations with everyone.

JORDAN BURROWS, ABC4 NEWS: And what do you think when you see gas, you know, for 4.30, 4.40, just your thoughts on that?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, obviously it's really difficult. My family buys gasoline too, and it's really hard. We have taken a look at it across the past 20 years to look at the burden on people and the bad news, and it's all bad news, I mean, there's no good news. I mean, it is the highest actual amount that we've ever paid here in the State of Utah.

As a burden on taxpayers, it's not the highest we've ever had just because of inflation. So, there are couple ways that you can look at that. One is just the, you know, the cost of commodities back in 2008 versus today. So, even though it's higher now than in 2008, because of general inflation, the burden isn't quite as high as it was in 2008, that doesn't matter to people, it's still really high.

If you measure it as a burden, as a percentage of average income in the state, because incomes have increased in the state over the past 10 years, past 15 years, it's also, not the heaviest burden that we've seen, but it's still a really high burden and the difference between those other times is that everything else is more expensive too because we have general inflation.

So, again, in 2008 where we saw the type of inflation around gas, we didn't have the same inflationary pressures on food and other things that we've seen. So, when you combine that total inflation, I believe that the pressure on families right now is as high as it's probably ever been. So, deeply concerning.

We know that it will change, people will have to change their habits, they'll have to change the way they do things, that may mean, you know, that family vacation that people were planning on taking may not happen or will have to be shortened or kept to kept closer to home. And in the worst-case scenarios, it means that families will have to choose between a tank of gas and food at the store, and that just can't be a choice.

REPORTER: Governor-

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: So, did-

REPORTER: You mentioned- 

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: the legislature fumble when they didn't consider your food tax credit?

GOVERNOR COX: Well, I wouldn't call it a fumble, I really liked our food tax credit, obviously, they replaced it with something that I also, love and that is the earned income tax credit, something I've been pushing for for a long, long time, and was very excited to get across the finish line. And so, no, I wouldn't say it was a fumble, and again, you know, they didn't know at the time that we were working on taxes in January, which is when we worked on the tax portion of this, they had no idea that gas taxes were going to spike to these levels.

EMILY MEANS, KUER:

EMILY MEANS, KUER: Governor, you mentioned the war in Europe, right now, Utah-based artist Galina Perova is trying to get her family members who are Ukrainian refugees to Salt Lake City. Utah has typically been very welcoming of refugees, what can your administration do to help this family and other Ukrainian refugees?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, what we can do is to continue to put pressure on the administration, the Biden administration, to allow those refugees to come to the State of Utah. I do know, and again, I don't mean that in negative sense, I believe that The President and others are actively working on this, we've been told they are. We understand that one of the things, most people don't realize that generally the way the refugee system works, it takes years to get refugees here. And we've seen a recent exception to that that was made for the Afghan refugees that had aided the United States Government in the war in Afghanistan, and we were able to bring over 900 of those refugees here.

What we are hearing as a possibility, is that, exactly the example that you gave, that family members of American citizens might be allowed a top priority, or be able to waive some of those longstanding rules around processing refugees, and that is something that I would support and I would encourage.

The lieutenant governor met with the Romanian ambassador who shares a border with Ukraine and just devastating what they're seeing in Romania and Poland, even more so, the ability of these border countries to care for 2.5 now, probably pushing towards 3 million refugees, is just impossible. And it's incredible to see, I mean, basically what they're doing now is just saying, "hey, you live with this family, you live with this family, they're just taking them in as families." It's incredibly heartening to see the humanitarian efforts that are occurring there. I know a kid I grew up with in Fairview that just flew there to Poland, on the border, he's a doctor and is providing aid. 

We're hearing there's a lot of hypothermia cases, as people are walking for, you know, 20, 30 hours through the snow and the cold. And so, we, the world needs to open their doors to these refugees and Utah's doors are wide open.

EMILY MEANS, KUER: What kind of pressure are you applying? What do those conversations look like?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, so, we talk with our counterparts at the State Department and others, just letting them know, "hey, we're ready when you're ready, just know, anything you need," it's more encouraging, like, "let us know and we'll jump." The same thing happened with the Afghan refugees and I think that makes it an easier decision for them when they know that states are actively ready and willing to do whatever it takes.

REPORTER: Back to bills.

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah.

REPORTER: Are there any you plan to veto besides House bill 11?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, as I mentioned, we're still going through the bills. I've still got a few hundred to get through. So, I don't want to say there aren't any, but what I can say right now is we haven't received many veto requests in fact. I would say, at least in my time, in the, what? 9 years, 10 years now, that I have either served in the legislature as lieutenant governor or governor, that this is the lowest number of veto requests that we've ever seen. And that speaks very broadly, again, with the exception, unfortunately, of what happened with just a couple hours left in the session, it speaks to what an incredible session it was and the number of bills that didn't pass that people would've been very upset about and that we likely would've vetoed, and then the good bills that did pass. And so, we're kind of stunned. Usually, our inboxes just fill up with veto requests and it's been fairly quiet. And so, I don't have any right now that are on my list of veto. 

VERONICA SANSUR, TELEMUNDO UTAH: Governor, Hispanic community and immigrants are waiting for the sign of Bill 216.

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah.

VERONICA SANSUR, TELEMUNDO UTAH: Which would make the driver's license test available in other language and not only in English, your thoughts, and are you going to sign it when it arrives to your desk?

GOVERNOR COX: Look, we're very excited for this bill, something we worked on and something that we supported and yeah, we can't wait to sign it as soon as I get a chance to go through that bill. Yep, thank you.

REPORTER: Governor, can you give us an update on whether the state has found enough housing for the state's Afghan arrivals? I know you said last month that you were still looking for-

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah.

REPORTER: 50 housing units for 220 individuals.

GOVERNOR COX: I will have to get back to you on that, I have not gotten an update. What I do know is that we did have people reach out after that press conference and offer housing. I don't know if we quite got enough to get all of them, but I know we're getting very close, so, I'll have to get an update and get back to you and we're happy to do that.

EMILY MEANS, KUER: We've talked a lot about housing today.

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah.

EMILY MEANS, KUER: Do you think it was a missed opportunity that the legislature didn't fully fund your housing request?

GOVERNOR COX: Well, obviously I would love the legislature to adopt my budget wholesale, but I also, realize that's not how it works and there are 104 people that get to list their priorities and they did that. What I will say is, if you were to compare my budget requests with what they actually passed, it's remarkably similar and I think that shows not just that they agreed with what I did, but that we worked very closely together during the year to figure out what the top priorities are and to try to include their priorities in my budget as well.

This is one where I, you know, I would've loved to have had more money, but I'm not going to complain about the money that we got, it was very generous, historic numbers, numbers that we have never seen before. And some of the commentary coming out of the legislature was that there are still funds that were approved last year that haven't been spent yet and they're correct about that as we're setting up these processes. "And so, let's see how we do, come back and show us that you're spending these in the right ways and that it's making a difference," and that's important.

They absolutely need to hold us responsible and make sure that we are using the funds in a way that makes a difference. So, it wasn't no, it was, "here's a whole bunch of money and then come back and let us know, and we'll get you more if things are working." So, I welcome the opportunity to show that we can spend this money in a way that impacts people, real people and makes a difference. So, I would say I'm generally excited, would've loved more, but we're good with what we've got.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: At this point some water districts were proposing restrictions already, including no to landscaping, indoor water restrictions, as well as significant cuts in outdoor water use. What are you being updated on as far as the drought conditions and what can we expect as things start warming up?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, thank you. So, we get routine updates, I was updated just this week, it's a mixed bag, there is some good news and obviously some bad news. Maybe I'll start with, you know, just kind of a general report. Right now, our snowpack is sitting at about 85% of normal. You know, normal years don't happen, you have big years and low years and that's how we get to an average, right? And so, this, most people would say that this is a pretty normal year, about as close as you can get to a normal year. In the past we wouldn't have blinked an eye at 85% snowpack, that's great, you know, that's fine.

The problem is when you have 85% snowpack on the back of a couple really bad years, you need, you know, we need one of those 150% years, we need three or four of those 150% years. And so, we certainly would've liked to have more snowpack. We are in a nice weather right now where we're getting these storms, they're not huge storms, but they are coming regularly, that's good news. December was awesome, January, most of February were terrible. March has been good and so, that's some of the positive news.

The bad news is, again, that our reservoirs we're so, far below normal and were, I think on average were about 10% below where we were last year at this time, and so, that's not great. I suspect that we will end up with our reservoirs filled to a higher degree than we did last year, once the spring runoff is occurred, so, that's positive news. We're seeing the moisture content of the soil is much, much higher than it was last year, which means runoff will actually get there. So, I'm very positive, I am worried about Weber Basin, that's the one I'm most worried about, but we got everything passed in the legislature that we wanted, so, we feel good.

REPORTER: Okay, that's all the time we have for our television broadcast. Thank you so, much for joining us for the Governor's Monthly News Conference.

ANNOUNCER: This has been the Governor's Monthly News Conference. For transcripts, full video and more information, visit pbsutah.org/governor.

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