‘Trying to find the right balance’: Gov. Cox discusses taxes, water and pickleball

ST. GEORGE — The governor of Utah said Friday that a balance between lowering taxes, increasing some spending and an influx of infrastructure funds will mean a boost for Southern Utah’s roads and pocketbooks.

Gov. Spencer Cox is seen during a Zoom interview from Salt Lake City with St. George News, March 4, 2022 | Image from Zoom screenshot, St. George News

“And then a social security tax reduction for seniors, which again, in Washington County especially, that will have a huge impact,” Cox told St. George News. “Any time we can get more money in the pockets of our people, that’s a good thing.

“It’s something we should be celebrating.”

With the 2022 Utah legislative session coming to an end, St. George News sat for a one-on-one over Zoom with Gov. Spencer Cox about a multitude of issues including tax cuts, police reform, the drought, Cedar City and even pickleball. 

Watch the complete interview in the video above.

St. George News: One thing I have to ask right away, and this concerns a tweet of yours earlier this week. You sent pics of you playing pickleball with legislators, and I just have to ask as pickleball is a phenomenon down here, as you probably know. Is it easier to play pickleball against legislators or negotiate with them?

Gov. Spencer Cox plays pickleball, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 2, 2022 | Photo via Sen. Todd Weiler Twitter page, St. George News

Cox: I would say the pickleball piece is definitely more fun. I don’t know that it’s easier, but it’s a fun sport. We love it. I’m a tennis player, so I’m a little late to pickleball, but certainly getting there. And it’s been so much fun. I played probably three times during the session with Republicans and Democrats and we don’t talk shop. We do trash talk, but we have a lot of fun.

St. George News: Among the bills you’ve already signed are reductions in the state income tax. What do you say to those who say it doesn’t go too far or doesn’t go far enough? And what about those who feel that these revenues could be going towards teachers and education and social programs?

Cox: There will always be someplace to put money and that’s not what this is about. It’s about balancing, and that’s what legislators do. It’s what governors do is trying to find that right balance between the public needs that we fund via government and making sure that we keep as much money in the pockets of people out there.

The fact that there are people that say it doesn’t go far enough — and people that say it goes too far — probably means we’re getting close to whatever that right balance is.

But I will say it’s not just income tax. There are two other things that I’m very excited about. The earned income tax credit, which will help low-income earners. I think that’s a big deal for our state. It’s something I’ve tried to get done for eight years and we’re finally able to get it done this year. And then a social security tax reduction for seniors, which again, in Washington County, especially, that will have a huge impact. And I’m just a believer … I’m a conservative by heart and by choice and always have been, and any time we can get more money in the pockets of our people, that’s a good thing.

It’s something we should be celebrating.

St. George News: It probably goes into the doesn’t-go-far-enough column, but the food tax didn’t come up in this session. Is that something you might consider in the future or the Legislature might?

Cox: Yeah, absolutely. The reason for that – and this is a little wonky and I think most Utahns probably don’t understand this – I certainly didn’t before I was in the Legislature. And it’s where the money goes in. We have an earmark on income tax that is directly for education. Now we changed the Constitution a couple of years ago to allow us to use it for a few other things, but that money has to go in those small categories. And that’s where most of the growth is happening in the state.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the Lincoln Day Dinner in St. George, Utah, Feb. 26, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

We fund everything else through the General Fund, which is mostly sales-tax-related and that small remaining tax on food at the state level goes to that. So if you cut that back, then we’re having road problems and other issues. And so it’s not that people in the Legislature don’t want to get rid of the tax on food, it’s that because of where you can spend the dollars, it makes it that much harder to do so. Certainly, there were negotiations during this legislative session about broadening the income tax for things other than education.

We want to protect education and keep education whole. So we’re working on a way to do that that would allow us to eliminate the tax on food. And I think there’s fairly broad support from that. I know I certainly support it if we can find that right balance and that right mechanism.

St. George News: Going to your desk, there’s a bill that prohibits no-knock warrants for misdemeanors and also requires officers to wear identifiable labels. Is this a police reform you can support? And to the “does it go far enough?” are there other police reforms needed at this point in the state?

Cox: Well, we’ve made a lot of what I would say is a lot of good progress when it comes to finding that right balance and working with law enforcement. Last session, we had 11 or 12 bills around police reform that we had broad support for amongst our public safety community. This is one that I do support as well. I think it’s very important. We’ve certainly seen nationally some serious problems with no-knock warrants and they’ve led to tragic deaths of officers and deaths of citizens.

File photo of Santa Clara-Ivins Police officers speaking to a neighbor, Ivins, Utah, May 21, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

And so I believe that this is the right type of reform at the right time. You know, I lament this all the time, but all politics has become national. And we have incredible law enforcement in our state, and sometimes they get attacked unfairly because of something that happens somewhere else. And that’s not fair to them, but this is the type of reform that I think has been needed for a while. 

And again, we have fairly broad support from one the law enforcement community themselves on this one.

St. George News: Turning to a more rural issue here, there is a bill about donation of wild game that’s also heading your desk and it would allow people to donate wild game to food banks. We quoted Rep. (Joel) Ferry and he was mentioning that this is one of those things that we can’t do in Utah and he doesn’t know why. Do you know why? And is this something you can sign?

Cox: Well, I don’t know why. And I agree. I agree with Rep. Ferry that anything we can do, working with our ag community, working with our sportsman community, to get food to those that need it, we should absolutely be taking advantage of that. 

We have a very vibrant sportsman community here in the state. I’ve hunted my whole life. And so, yeah, using those means to get food on the table of those that need it, I think, is a very good change and I look forward to signing that bill.

St. George News: Let’s turn a little bit more to Southern Utah issues specifically here. I don’t want to make you jealous up there in Salt Lake City, but we’ve been in the 80s this week.

Cox: And I’ve been jealous a lot of you guys the last few weeks.

St. George News: Yeah. So we’re starting to think about the drought again. Local cities are literally, as we speak, deciding on water conservation ordinances and the level of Lake Powell … that’s going down now too, so is Lake Powell the only option for Southern Utah, or are there other options to make up for what is, at this point, looking like a water deficit?

Cox: Well, that’s a great question. And certainly we’re having those conversations with your local water conservancy district. It’s so important that we continue to look at all measures that are available. Obviously, conservation is a big piece of that and you guys have been doing better at that. We’re really proud of the work that is happening down there. You’ve got amazing public leaders, your county commissioners, your mayors. I support their efforts as well.

The land in a ravine at the end of Center Street owned by Kayenta Development that is being eyed by the Washington County Water Conservancy District as the site for a new reservoir, Ivins, Utah, Dec. 1, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

But we have to look at additional storage. I’ve been saying that for quite a while now. It’s tough for sure. The storage can be above ground or underground. We’re making some changes to include aquifer recharging in some of our plans – something that we haven’t done historically. But that’s another way of storing the water below ground that is great because there’s much less evaporation. We have the ability to keep it there until we need it. What I would say is everything is on the table right now. 

We’re still praying for rain. We’ve got some, some rain in the forecast over the next couple of weeks and snow and hopefully that will help us, but we have a long ways to go to get out of this deficit.

St. George News: Another local thing that you were involved with is Cedar City is among the areas that are a part of the Main Street Program. I know that’s certainly out of your office. What is your hope that Cedar City and other towns will use this program for?

Cox: Well, we’re working really hard to keep our rural communities vibrant, and we’ve had Main Street programs in the past. I know when I was the mayor of my small town in Fairview, we were able to take advantage of some of those Main Street programs, but really we want to keep Main Street vibrant. 

It’s a place where people can come and gather, shop, obviously supporting our business communities in those areas. We’re really lucky this year to have so many resources available for people and for communities.

So you’re going to see the Main Street Program. We have the American Rescue Plan funding that is still coming into communities. We’re going to have a significant influx of money around infrastructure coming from the federal infrastructure bill. And we’re going to be working with communities to match that up with state funds as well.

Workers install Cedar City’s holiday light display along Main Street, Cedar City, Utah, November 2020 | Photo courtesy of Cedar City Events, St. George News / Cedar City News

So it can go even further. We’ll expand on some of the grant programs that we have available. And this is, I believe, a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to improve infrastructure and make sure that our communities are strong and vibrant. We’re hoping to have some more rural funds as well that’s working its way through the Legislature for road improvements in some of our rural communities that are really struggling to keep up with their roads. And so it should be a very good legislative session for rural Utah.

St. George News: Certainly among road improvements, the corridors we’re talking about here, is that that’s something still very much on your mind up there about what to do down here?

Cox: Yeah, for sure. In fact, this will be the largest infrastructure investment that you will see in our state’s history. It will be around a billion dollars when all is said and done.

Some of the big projects that are on your DOT’s list over the next 10 years … Maybe instead of having them 10 to 15 years out, they’re five years out. So we’re working to try to move those up as much as we can and stretch those dollars as far as we can.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2022 Utah Legislature here.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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