‘That’s just sad’: Governor addresses concerns on House 72 primary, water, transportation, tuition freeze

ST. GEORGE — With ballots now arriving in the mail for the general election, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday addressed those still skeptical about an election from nearly four months ago: The Republican primary for Utah House 72 seat.

In a video screenshot, Gov. Spencer Cox is seen during a taping of the PBS Utah “Governor’s Monthly News Conference” program, Salt Lake City, Utah, Oct. 20, 2022 | Photo via video courtesy of PBS Utah, St. George News

During the taping in Salt Lake City for the PBS Utah Monthly Governor’s News Conference program, Cox also addressed meeting with water officials in Southern Utah last week as well as expressing support for a high-speed rail link between Southern and Northern Utah.

Addressing the close GOP primary for House 72 – which Joseph Elison won by 10 votes over Willie Billings to face Ila Fica in the general election – Cox noted that a full audit was completed on that race and the process of the recount was transparent.  

“It’s so much easier for people who lose to just say, ‘Well, there’s no way I could have lost. It must be a rigged election’ with no proof at all. That’s just sad and unfortunate that candidates take that track,” Cox said in response to a question from St. George News. “I’m so grateful for candidates who lose with dignity and don’t undermine the system without any evidence or any proof.”

Supporters of Billings say that an additional hand recount should have been performed, rather than one done by machines. 

Elison and Fica both addressed the close primary and election integrity during a debate between the two at Utah Tech’s Eccles Fine Arts Center Wednesday night. 

“The idea that we have corrupt county officials that for some reason we’re trying to get me into this position to run and get to the general election, I think is absolutely crazy,” said Elison during the debate, adding anyone could go and observe firsthand the election counting process. 

“Go down to the county office, ask them to take you through the tour of how they handle the ballots from the day they show up to how the ballots are counted … the whole entire process,”Elison said. “If someone out there says that Washington County is corrupt, I would just simply ask him, ‘Please go through that process before you make that assessment. Go check it out for yourself. Don’t just regurgitate something that somebody else said. Do your own homework.’”

Staff of the Washington County Clerk/Auditor’s Office engage in a post-election audit, St. George, Utah, July 8, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

When asked if as a Democrat the recent allegations of local election fraud will make it tougher for people to believe if she wins the election, Fica said based on the experience in the primary, even if there was “100% accuracy” in the recount, there still would be cries of fraud. 

“I think people would find it hard to believe and there would definitely be some people that say that there was some fraud, but I think we have ways to show them that it was a valid election,” she said.”

Cox cited a Deseret News poll released this week that said 89% of Utahns say elections will be run “accurately and fairly.” He also said he doesn’t have authority over elections in the state and only the Utah attorney general can ultimately investigate elections. 

“Elections are run by county clerks,” Cox said. “That’s how this process works. We talk about presidential elections. They’re just county elections where we vote for the president.

“There are no secrets here. Come in and we will show you exactly how every election works. People have no idea how many security measures are in place … how impossible it would be to commit the type of fraud that could overturn an election.”

Governor praises Southern Utah efforts on water

During his PBS Utah press conference, the governor set aside praise for water officials in Southern Utah after meeting with them during his recent trip to the area. As the rest of the state continues to find ways of dealing with the drought, Cox said the southwestern part of the state is setting an example with its conservation, reuse and storage plans for water as discussed in a meeting that also included state water officials and Washington County Water Conservancy District General Manager Zachary Renstrom. 

Volunteers install water-wise plants in a spot previously occupied by non-functional turf at Unity Park as a part of the Flip Blitz campaign, Ivins, Utah, May 19, 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“It was a phenomenal meeting,” Cox said. “I’m so proud of the work that they’re doing down in Southern Utah. You’re going to see more proposals coming from them about new construction, water reuse and trying to improve and increase what they’re doing with the limited amount of water that they have down there.

“I think people across the state, but especially those that live in Southern Utah, will be well served by the proposals that they’re gonna be putting forward.”

Governor pushing for tuition freeze for Utah Tech, SUU, other universities

The governor didn’t back off his previous criticism of President Joe Biden’s move to offer student-loan forgiveness but offered an initiative of his own: Freezing tuition for all schools in the Utah System of Higher Education. That would include Utah Tech and Southern Utah universities as well as Dixie Tech.

Cox said the problem is not the cost of student loans but the cost of postsecondary education.

“What would help people is a tuition freeze, like we should not increase tuition next year,” Cox said, mentioning he will have a proposal for the upcoming state legislature. “We have the resources necessary. We’ve been very generous to higher education over the past few years. So I will be proposing a tuition freeze this year that will help students, families.”

High-speed rail from St. George? 

A quick, high-speed transportation link between St. George and Cedar City with points like Salt Lake City and Las Vegas is not a pipe dream. 

Stock photo. | Photo by ssuaphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Cox said the Utah Department of Transportation, as well as Idaho and Nevada transportation agencies, recently submitted a proposal to the federal government for an Intermountain Corridor, high-speed rail transportation system between Las Vegas, through Utah to Idaho.

“I’m very much a fan of it.  I would love nothing more than to have some sort of high-speed rail transportation between Salt Lake City and St. George,” Cox said. “I believe it can happen in my lifetime. And hopefully before I’m too old.”

But the governor said if and how soon such a system is speeding passengers across the state comes down to the government being open to innovation and getting out of the way of a train of progress. He referred to a recent New York Times story that noted California has spent billions of dollars in the last decade on a high-speed rail system that still hasn’t made a single trip and rejected a proposal from one company that would have resulted in the system being completed by 2018. 

“I think that’s very telling about the kind of the state of our ability to build things anymore and the craziness over permitting,” Cox said. “We stopped building stuff in this country. We used to lead the world when it came to innovation in transportation. And now we’re well behind the world when it comes to high-speed rail.”

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

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