Utah Gov. Spencer Cox supports the appointment of a Great Salt Lake Czar but says a target lake level is "dumb" | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox supports the appointment of a Great Salt Lake Czar but says a target lake level is "dumb" 

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click to enlarge Utah Gov. Spencer Cox stands before a projection of the state seal during a press conference at PBS Utah on Thursday, Feb. 16. - CHRISTOPHER SAMULES | POOL PHOTO
  • Christopher Samules | Pool Photo
  • Utah Gov. Spencer Cox stands before a projection of the state seal during a press conference at PBS Utah on Thursday, Feb. 16.

UNIVERSITY—With roughly two weeks remaining in the 2023 legislative session, the most meaningful action taken so far by lawmakers regarding the declining Great Salt Lake has been to wear blue clothing and pose for a group photo on the stone steps of the State Capitol.

It's not uncommon for the most significant bills of any given year to be made public only in the waning days of debate, after the broad strokes of a new state budget have been negotiated. But the apparent dearth of action on a stated priority—in this case water management and conservation—was made all the more stark when lawmakers spent the first half of their 2023 gathering (including a much-hyped "water week") passing divisive bills on vouchers and transgender rights before rejecting legislation to set a target level for lake water or to require public disclosure of golf course water use.

Asked about the Legislature's progress on Thursday, Gov. Spencer Cox initially said to "come back and ask [him] that question in two weeks." But he continued, expressing optimism that the House and Senate would arrive at the right place regarding Utah's response to generational drought conditions.

"So far, I feel really good about the direction we're headed," Cox said. "The [lake level] target goal is a dumb thing. We don't need a target goal, we need a range."

Cox said he was also encouraged by legislation—made public Wednesday evening—that would create a central authority over the Great Salt Lake with an appointed commissioner to head up the state's efforts, comparable to so-called "czars" over homelessness and pornography.

"The commissioner piece will allow us to have somebody watching that constantly and helping us understand what kind of tweaks needs to be made," Cox said.

The governor's comments came during a televised press conference at PBS Utah, in which Cox was peppered with a broad swath of topics from criminal justice reform and tax cuts to Sen. Mitt's Romney's reelection prospects and the legalization of Psilocybin—or "magic mushrooms"—for medicinal uses.

Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla is sponsoring legislation this year that would create a process for qualifying patients to obtain and use psilocybin with the coordination of a medical professional, similar to the state's nascent medical marijuana program. Escamilla's bill follows successful legislation last year to establish a task force and study the drug's use as a medicinal treatment.

"I'd rather wait for the FDA," Cox said, suggesting that moving too fast on hallucinogenics would be akin to experimenting on the state's residents. "It's just not there yet. We got there with medical marijuana."

Cox also defended his decision to sign legislation that bars transgender youth from receiving gender-affirming health care, saying that there are legitimate questions about the long-term impacts of things like puberty blockers and hormone treatments.

Lawmakers moved quickly to pass anti-trans legislation at the top of the 2023 session, over the objections of LGBTQ advocates and community groups. Cox said that he would have written the bill differently if he had the ability to do so, and that he'd like to see increased investment by the state into mental health resources for transgender youth, who experience bullying, depression, violence and self-harm at exorbitant rates.

"Pushing pause does not mean that we abandon these kids," Cox said. "This is a good-faith effort on my part. I can't speak to the good faith of everyone and I'm sure there is some bad faith."

He also cited mental health concerns in his support for legislation that would limit or even ban social media use by children. He said there are technological solutions for verifying a user's age without an excessive amount of personal data being shared with private companies, and that even once-skeptical critics are having to reckon with an increasing amount of data that shows the harm of social media on children, and particularly young girls.

"We are literally killing our kids with this stuff," Cox said. "It's unconscionable. And I suspect that 10 years from now we'll look back on this the way we look back on opioids and the way we look back on tobacco use."

Cox also voiced support for legislation that would only permit abortions to be performed at hospitals and under very strict conditions, effectively precluding the existence of abortion clinics like those operated by Planned Parenthood. Cox said the bill is doing "cleanup" following Utah's trigger ban—which is currently on hold by the courts pending state constitutional review—and that it provides clarity to hospitals that had been hesitant to perform abortions on their premises.

Under Utah's trigger law, virtually all abortions would be criminalized, except those related to incidents of rape, incest and significant threat to the health of the mother. Legislation sponsored this year would require rape victims to report their assault to police before qualifying for a legal abortion—something many victims are justifiably reluctant to do, and that has led to a troublingly high number of accusers being charged with filing false reports after their cases fail to move forward. The "cleanup" legislation would also remove the exemptions for pregnancies caused by rape and incest after 18 weeks of fetal development.

"I do think that's a valid time frame for people to make that decision," Cox said. "We've gotten to a place where it seems like the choices are no abortions ever or no restrictions ever. The American people are much more nuanced on this."

The governor's full February press conference can be watched by clicking here.

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About The Author

Benjamin Wood

Benjamin Wood

Lifelong Utahn Benjamin Wood has worn the mantle of City Weekly's news editor since 2021. He studied journalism at Utah State University and previously wrote for The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News and Entertainment Weekly

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