"This emergency order will allow the state to use any and all state resources we need to cope with the drought." 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, ladies and gentlemen. It is great to be with you again today. We appreciate our media members who are here with us and PBS Utah for carrying this opportunity once again.
I want to start with a topic that we've talked a lot about over the past year plus, and that is the drought that we are facing. Earlier this week, and some of you were there, I held a press conference at Jordanelle Reservoir in Wasatch County, and we were able to see firsthand the devastating effects of our lingering drought. For those who weren't there, the view was striking. Jordanelle is literally half empty, or half full depending on your level of optimism, and the shoreline has receded so much that it's a fair hike just to reach the water. And sadly, Jordanelle is one of our reservoirs that is more full than others.
Utah has been in drought for eight of the last 10 years, and as we've talked about before, some recent studies show that this is the worst 20-year drought in the West in the last 1,200 years. Unfortunately, the dismal snowpack is not enough to end it, with snowpack at about 25% below normal for this time of year. Obviously, reservoir storage is what gets us through the dry years and is dependent on snowpack and runoff but extended drought, and last year's hot, dry conditions have really drained our reservoirs. Right now, our statewide reservoir storage is at about 59% of capacity, and there's no doubt that we're going to have a difficult water year ahead.
So, as a result of that, I'm issuing a drought state of emergency, effective today. This emergency order will allow the state to use any and all state resources we need to cope with the drought. This is very similar to what we did last year. The Department of Public Safety, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of Agriculture and Food will coordinate aid, assistance and relief.
Last summer I asked Utahans to pray for rain, which helped, but we're certainly not relying solely on deity to solve our problems. I so appreciate the legislature. In this past legislative session, we asked them to help fund our water future and they responded with a record number of bills designed to conserve and stretch our water supply.
These new laws provide new tools that will save water, such as developing a new turf buyback program, funding secondary water metering, promoting drought tolerant landscapes, allowing the purchase of water rights to help places like the Great Salt Lake, optimizing agriculture use of water, and funding more studies of the Great Salt Lake and watersheds to help us with a data-driven decision approach, and so much more. The state is also providing a detailed water plan with the next chapter coming out within the next week. And the spring storms are helping. We have an amazing storm that's coming over the next few days, we're very excited about that. All of those will help.
Unfortunately, it's not enough to get us out of the drought right now, and so this state of emergency is very important. Once again, we're asking Utahans, we're asking farmers, we're asking businesses, we're asking citizens, institutions across the state, to do their part to conserve and reduce water usage as we're heading into the season where we start to water our crops and our lawns. Last year Utahans did just that, saving billions of gallons and we can do it again.
Now before I get to questions, I just want to touch on one other issue that is threatening our quality of life and that is the inflation that we are seeing in the United States, and specifically here in Utah. The US Department of Labor reported that Utah and other western states are experiencing the highest inflation rates in the country. The US overall inflation rate is at about 8.5% and Utah and much of the west is closer to 10%. With record low unemployment and strong job growth it's undeniable that Utah's economy is booming. In fact, this week the Rich States, Poor States Study ranked Utah as the number one for the best economic outlook in the nation for the 15th year in a row.
But with inflation this high, Utahans are really feeling the pinch, especially at the gas pump, and as of yesterday gas costs in Utah were about $4.48 per gallon. Now I've asked our team, as I've mentioned before, we sat down, we've met with the petroleum industry in the state, we've met with legislators, we've put together some ideas and we are having discussions with legislative leadership and we anticipate over the next few weeks we will continue those discussions with the legislature as they will have to make decisions on what they are willing to do. We are hopeful that we can find some common ground and ways to reduce inflation.
Sadly, this is mostly being driven at the national and international level, but we're going to try to do everything we can to help consumers here in the state of Utah and we look forward to those ongoing conversations with the legislature.
We know that Utahans are working hard. We are very lucky to have such a robust economy, it means more Utahans are employed than ever before. It means that there are higher paying jobs available for Utahans more than ever before. That's the good news. But it certainly doesn't help when you're struggling to make ends meet, and we know there are far too many Utahans that are in that category as well. With that, we're happy to answer questions.
BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Governor, on the state of emergency for drought, what does this get you that's different from last year?
GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, nothing that's different from last year. It's exactly like last year. And that's why I'm actually optimistic because of what happened last year. And, honestly, we far surpassed and exceeded our highest expectations last year for what Utahans would be willing to do and their ability to conserve. There were some eye-popping conservation numbers and our water managers were all shocked at how well Utahans did last year. So, we're hoping for a repeat performance this year.
BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Are you planning any restrictions, or any kind of demands from the state on local water districts when it comes to conservation measures?
GOVERNOR COX: So just like last year, those will be taken on a district by district, case by case scenario. Every district has different storage capacity and they understand the usage and the needs of their districts better than the state does. So, some districts will see conservation measures go into place very, very soon.
Again, I anticipate in my own water district, in Sanpete County, in Fairview, that we will have restrictions as early as June 1st, based on what we're seeing right now. Now the good news is, and I do want to say there is some good news, we had a rough October, November, December was one of the best Decembers we've ever had, then January was rough, February was one of the worst Februarys we've ever had, March was warmer than normal, which isn't good, April has been a great month. I mean, this is the type of April we've all hoped for in that it's cooler so the snow has stayed in the mountains for the most part and we've gotten a tremendous amount of rain in the valleys and snow in the mountains. So that's all very positive. And if these storms will keep lining up and keep coming that's going to help those early restrictions. But for now, I would anticipate that most water districts will see restrictions fairly soon.
BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: Couldn't that happen without a state of emergency though?
GOVERNOR COX: Sure, yeah.
BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: So, the question really is, what does the state of emergency do?
GOVERNOR COX: There's a couple things that the state of emergency does. It allows us as the state government to give resources and make resources available to those districts. We do have emergency funds that we set aside, that the legislature sets aside. We can use those in extreme cases. So, if there are communities that start to struggle with drinking water, for example, we can tap those emergency resources to help those communities in ways that are necessary. Again, we're not looking at any drinking water issues right now but as the summer moves on, those things happen sometimes, it's very possible.
The other thing that is very helpful here is that it sends a message. It sends a message to our water districts, it sends a message to the citizens of the state that this is an emergency situation, that we all have to be thinking along those lines. I will add to that that we've had these conversations with legislative leadership and both the Speaker and the President are very supportive of this emergency declaration.
BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: So, the message is more important than the emergency funds? It sounds to me-
GOVERNOR COX: Correct.
BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: The emergency funds probably will not be used.
GOVERNOR COX: We certainly hope not but they're there in case we need them.
BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: So, the message is more important than whatever mechanics of the emergency order are.
GOVERNOR COX: Absolutely, yes, that's correct.
KATIE MCKELLAR, DESERT NEWS: Governor, any specifics about what you're discussing with legislative leaders on relief for inflation? Anything more about possibly pausing the state gas tax? Any specifics you can offer?
GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, I can tell you... So, the discussions around the state gas tax have been met with the same level of concern that I've talked about before. Not because we love the state gas tax but because of the way that the gas tax is set up. So, there are a couple of things that are problematic.
One is the way the gas tax funds state government, it goes specifically to the Department of Transportation and to local governments for road issues that have to be taken care of. The other problem is that we actually don't tax directly at the pump, we tax the petroleum companies at the rack and so any tax relief that comes, doesn't automatically get passed on to consumers, or doesn't have to be passed on to consumers. And so, there's actually the potential for a windfall to petroleum companies if we cut the tax because even though technically the consumer is paying that it's remitted at the rack from the gas companies and so that's a little different than other states. And so, we're looking at other ways.
Are there other ways that we can help get relief to the most vulnerable? I will tell you, one of the things that we've proposed, that I'm very much in favor of and that I hope the legislature will agree with, is we did a Free Fair February for transits along the Wasatch front. We would like to see free fares in every transit district across the state and that the state would fund that for a period of time, three months, six months, something like that. Now we know that wouldn't help everyone but that's a real win-win because first of all, we saw the numbers in February, and they were very positive, so that gives an opportunity for citizens that are struggling that have access to transit to be able to use that. That also reduces demand at the pump, which is one of the problems.
So, if you keep your car parked and get on transit, now you're not buying gas which will help to lower the cost of gas over time. And then just the environmental piece of this as well, the air quality piece, that the more people ride transit the less pollution that is coming from cars as we're entering that ozone season in the state. And so that is one area. And there are transit districts. We have transit districts in St. George and Logan and Summit County. So that's one area. I think the cost would be about $3 million a month to be able to do something like that. Again, we would need help from the legislature to appropriate funding for something like that. But that's some of the ideas that are circulating around right now.
KATIE MCKELLAR, DESERT NEWS: Is there a special session coming then, or would we have to wait until the next general session?
GOVERNOR COX: If the legislature will agree to do something, and they're meeting to have these conversation. I've only met with legislative leadership; they're going to be meeting with their members to generate some ideas and toss around some of the ideas that we've shared. We would have to call a special session to do something like that. Unless there's some funding sitting somewhere that we could use until we get to the general session.
BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: At this point, on the idea of Free fair transit then, some have floated the idea of just the legislature picking up the tab for all transit, free fare forever. What do you think about hat?
GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, it's an idea worth exploring. Certainly, I think we were all pleasantly surprised by the numbers that came out. I would have to look at long term what that looks like but doing something like this would give us even more data to study. It's one thing to do it for a month, and I'm sure there were a lot of people maybe who've never used transit who said, "Oh, this'll be fun, let's go try it out." But will they keep using it and will they use it regularly? I think something like this would allow us better data, more data, and help us understand transit patterns so that we can help... And one of the things that we also want to do is make transit more convenient and get it closer to more people.
So as more people use the system that will help us understand. And as you all know; we actually changed the way we fund transit infrastructure this year in that the state will be taking a bigger role in that. UDOT will be playing a bigger role in that. So, I think for all of us this would be a great opportunity to learn more and hopefully make some better decisions and maybe some long-term decisions where we could get to that point, Ben.
JORDAN BURROWS, ABC4 NEWS: Governor, back to the drought now, two years in a row now with that state of emergency, what preventative measures are in place so that we're not having this conversation a year from now? Because that very well could happen with the extreme weather we've been experiencing.
GOVERNOR COX: Well, look, the only way that that change is if we have a good snow year. I mean, that's what drives all of this. And certainly, look, we've had periods of drought in the past, we've had periods of flooding in the past, and I anticipate that we'll have periods of flooding in the future, but right now the entire west is stuck in this dry cycle and the only thing that changes that is our ability to utilize the snowpack and increase water storage in the state.
So certainly, we will be looking at those things, but the laws that we passed in the session haven't taken effect yet, right? So, we'll see over the next year what impact these investments, and they're significant, will have on the state of Utah. But I mean we're talking $450 million. This was incredible. The legislature was so generous. What I'm most optimistic about is there has been a real paradigm shift, a mind shift, and it's probably later coming than it should have been, I will admit that, I'll be the first to admit that, but I'm so glad that we got here to where not just legislature and leadership in the state is understanding how water impacts the growth of the state, but how average citizens are also changing behavior. And that's hard to do, but it's happened. And so, I'm excited to see over the next few years what kind of an impact these laws that we've passed will have in place.
An example of this is the secondary water metering. Where we've installed secondary meters we've seen an immediate reduction in demand, even though we're not charging more. So, 20% to 30%, in some places, reduction in demand just by putting a meter outside so people know, they can see how much water they're using. And it surprises them sometimes, so they don't leave the hose on as long. Just things like that. But it's going to take a long time for that to happen, this is basically an eight- year project to get 200 of that million dollars in place. Those are grants that will go out to water districts. So, it's not going to happen overnight but it is a really important paradigm shift.
KATIE MCKELLAR, DESERET NEWS: Governor, back to inflation, how concerned are you about the ongoing inflation nationally and the Feds plan for further and bigger interest rate hikes?
GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, so I'm deeply concerned. There have just been so many mistakes made at the federal level. I thought there was a really interesting piece yesterday, in fact it was Senator Romney who wrote the piece in "The Wall Street Journal" that talked about some of those issues.
Now there is one piece that I'll mention that is not directly related to the federal government and this is a deep concern right now, and that is what is happening in China around supply chains. And sadly, we haven't even started to see the supply chain inflation that is going to come because of the terrible decisions that the Chinese government has made and the lockdowns that they are putting in place right now and their inability to get people vaccinated with vaccines that work. And so, we know that as they're shutting things down now there's going to be another inflationary bump because of the supply chain interruptions that are happening there. So that deeply concerns me.
Unfortunately, and this has been well documented, the Feds waited too long to raise interest rates which means they're going to have to be a little more aggressive right now. And let's be very clear, what they're trying to do here... This is very painful; they're trying to destroy demand. I mean, that's what this is. It's artificially destroying demand for homes and other things by raising the cost of capital. And let's also be clear about who that hurts. It hurts people at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale and so while it's necessary it's very harmful and very damaging. And then the continuous, terrible decision making that's happening by this presidential administration around energy and around pumping money into the system.
I met with the Fed chair in San Francisco last year and I asked specifically about inflation and I said, "I'm really worried about inflation, you can't keep pumping trillions of dollars, this is Economics 101, you can't keep pumping trillions of dollars into the system without it having some impact." And the response I got was, "Well coming out of any pandemic you're going to have an increase in demand before production can keep up with that. And we think this is going to be temporary." And I pushed back, and I said, "You know, I mean you're the expert but I just... I'm really struggling to see this." And now all the experts are admitting that they were wrong. And of course, the war in Ukraine is not helping things, but there are things we can do different and better and I certainly hope that the administration that Senator Romney called for yesterday will reevaluate some of the people they have advising them and will reevaluate some of the policies they have in place that are hurting people.
BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: How devastating was the President's executive order to stop oil and gas leases on federal land? And I know they've come back on that but just put the slither of what was potentially available. If the President today said, "We're going to open up these auctions again," for oil and gas leases, what do you think the impact would be?
GOVERNOR COX: Well, I think it would be significant, and here's why. I know there's a lot of people on the other side who are arguing practically that this is a sliver, that this is just a slither of overall production, but what people fail to understand, who don't operate in the practical world, who have never run a company, who have never run investments, what they don't understand is that messages that come, especially from the top, really determine where capital gets invested. And capital is a coward, it will flee where it's not wanted and it will go where it's welcomed and wanted. And what this administration has done is sent the message over and over again that energy development and energy production in this country, traditional energy production, is not welcome and it is not wanted. And that was the message that was sent by prohibiting those leases. And I love to share this with people because it's really surprising.
So, during the Trump administration they were doing about 100 leases a year, a little more than 100 leases a year, and so I asked them, "Do you know what the Obama administration was doing?" And it was over 80 leases per year, somewhere in that range, about 80 leases per year. So, yes, there was a difference but it wasn't a significant difference. And then I asked, "Do you know how many leases the Biden administration has done in the past year and a half?" And it's zero. It's zero. Now that is a difference, that's a significant difference and what that does is it says to producers and it says to, again, capital, "Do not invest here. We're not interested in this." And so, it's not just the leases, it's what we're saying about energy and energy independence globally at a time, again, when our national security is being threatened, and we knew it was being threatened, by a very aggressive Russia. And so, I think it was a colossal mistake and I think we're reaping the whirlwind because of it.
EMILY MEANS, KUER: Governor, I want to ask you about Senator Mike Lee's text messages to former Trump Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows. The messages showed that Lee initially supported legal challenges of battleground states 2020 election results and the texts also showed that he was trying to help find a strategy to challenge those results. Senator Lee told the Deseret News that his texts were taken out of context for political reasons. What do you make of his texts?
GOVERNOR COX: Well, I appreciate Senator Lee talking about what happened and what he believed and what he texted. I can't speak to his mindset at the time but I think it's important that he has those conversations. I also want to highlight, and what I can speak to is the conversations that I had with Senator Lee. And Senator Lee called me directly, I don't remember exactly what day it is, I think it was January 1st, it would have been right in that timeframe. I know it was before my inauguration so I think it was January 1st that he called me. And he just said, "Look, I've researched all of these claims, I've looked at everything, and I just don't think there's anything there and so I'm going to vote to certify the election." And that's what he told me. I can only speak to what he told me. And kind of lost in all of this is the fact that he did vote to certify the election, which many others did not. And so, I appreciated that. But, again, I think Senator Lee is the best person to discuss what those texts meant.
EMILY MEANS, KUER: Do you think his actions as portrayed by these texts were good or bad for the state of democracy in this country?
GOVERNOR COX: Well, again, I can only say what he said to me, and I've been very clear on my position, I'm an attorney, I ran elections for eight years, I studied every one of those theories, every one of those allegations of fraud that went through, I looked at all of those as well and I didn't see anything that would have allowed me to call in question the legitimacy of that election. And so, I appreciate that he called me on that day in early January and told me that he had looked at all of these things and didn't see anything there and that he was going to vote to certify the election, which he did. Beyond that, again, I wasn't party to those texts, I don't know if they were taken out of context, but he's the one who can explain those, and he has.
BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: Are you issuing any endorsements in that race?
GOVERNOR COX: No, not in the primary race. I have not issued any endorsements in the primaries.
BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: And the reason?
GOVERNOR COX: I don't endorse usually in primary races. Republican voters will decide that. That's just the way I operate, I haven't endorsed in any of those races.
REPORTER: That's all the time we have for our television broadcast. Thank you so much for joining us for the PBS News "Governor's News Conference" and we'll see you back here next month.
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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