Governor talks drought, road safety, Trump indictment during stop in St. George

ST. GEORGE — Sitting in front of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir, the centerpiece of the lobby of Desert Hills High School,  Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he wanted to put a hammer down on any thoughts the drought is over. 

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to students at Desert Hills High School, St. George, Utah, April 4, 2023 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

After speaking to an auditorium of students at the St. George school, he also spoke about help coming for the difficulty of seeing Southern Utah road markings at night and addressed a topic making big news: The indictment of former President Donald Trump. 

Cox spoke for 15 minutes with St. George News after addressing Desert Hills High School students and fielding their questions, similar to an event held at Parowan High School in Iron County Monday. 

The governor also spoke about his support of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a conversation he had Monday with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, divisiveness in America, the return of the Olympics to Utah and what it means for Southern Utah,and also addressed questions from local politicians and leaders.

Below is a transcript of the interview. 

St. George News: Southern Utah experienced storms and flooding a few weeks ago. Things infrastructure-wise came through, but skeptics might say, ‘Look, it’s a 300%-plus snowpack in Southern Utah, 200%-plus in the state. The drought’s over, right?’”.

Gov. Spencer Cox: This is part of living in the West. The drought isn’t over yet. We need a couple years like this for the drought to officially be over. We’re getting closer. We’re not in extreme drought like we’ve been for the past several years. And this will fill up most of our reservoirs. But again, Lake Powell is still 180 feet below level, whatever it is right now. There’s still a lot of work to do when it comes to getting water into those, those major reservoir systems. And we’ll continue to prepare for floods. There’s still a lot of water left to come down, and we’re hopeful that we can get it down without causing too much damage.

The Santa Clara River below the Clary Bridge as flood waters move through., Santa Clara, Utah, March 15, 2023 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

St. George News: Funds are available through federal infrastructure and inflation bills to build something like a water recycling facility in Southern Utah similar to what Las Vegas uses to potentially bring to the area at least a fourth of what a Lake Powell Pipeline would. Is that something that you would be willing to pursue? 

Cox: Absolutely. In fact, the Legislature set aside money for water reuse facilities here this year. We’re going to take advantage of those federal funds, as they become available for those types of projects. And your water commissioners down here are working in lockstep with us. We’re supportive of their lists of projects … the things that they want to accomplish. And we know that reuse has got to be part of what we’re trying to do down here. So there are some great opportunities.

St. George News: Just now at the Dixie Convention Center, you had a ceremonial signing for the Rural Transportation Infrastructure Fund (SB 175)  It gives $40 million right away and $2 of each car registration toward road improvements in counties with less the 125,000 people (all Southern Utah counties except Washington). What does this mean for the roads here in Southern Utah?

Cox:   It’s huge. Look, so we have all of the regular transportation funding. This is all additive to what we’ve done in the past. It’s something I pushed for two years. Finally, it got across the finish line in our third year. I’m really proud of it. It’s going to make a huge difference in maintaining our roads. That’s the biggest piece of this. You know, if you’re not chip-sealing roads every six, seven, eight years, then they’re going to deteriorate over time. And then you have catastrophic failure. And we’ve seen a lot of that, especially in the most rural parts of the state. This will be a game-changer for those communities.

St. George News: Also concerning roads is the difficulty of driving at night, especially during rain, with the lack of reflectors or anything in the road for night driving. 

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to St. George News in lobby of Desert Hills High School, St. George, Utah, April 4, 2023 | Photo from video by Chris Reed, St. George News

Cox: We’re working on that right now. The Department of Transportation has gotten some additional funding for reflective tape, reflective paint, reflective whatever device we’re going to use in those places. And we actually have some experiments going on across the state with different reflective tools and seeing what works best in the snow, not in the snow. Trying to figure that out. So I think you’ll see a lot more of that over the next few years.

St. George News: We’re also seeing a rise in car crashes at stoplight intersections. Are roundabouts an answer?

Cox: I’m a big proponent of roundabouts. They work. The data behind roundabouts when it comes to crashes and other things, they’re just much safer. There are less areas of conflict when you’re negotiating a roundabout. The problem is Utahns aren’t as used to roundabouts. And so sometimes it takes us a while to kind of figure out how they’re supposed to work. But they definitely work better. And we have been installing more roundabouts. UDOT has been doing more of that. Some local cities have done more of that in both Northern Utah and Southern Utah.

St. George News:  Former President Trump went to into court as the first current or former president to be indicted on criminal charges. At the same time, in every current poll, including one released Tuesday morning, Utah Republicans say he’s their frontrunner. If you had to answer that poll, would you be OK with Donald Trump being your frontrunner right now?

In a file photo, former President Donald Trump announces he is running for president for the third time while speaking at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Nov. 15, 2022 | Associated Press file photo by Andrew Harnik, St. George News

Cox:  I’ve always said, I like governors. I’m a big fan of governors. I support governors. I think governors make better presidents because of that executive experience they have. And that’s where my support is going towards presidents. But look, I am very worried about this indictment as an attorney myself. I know we have not seen yet the indictment (at the time of this interview). But I am very concerned because I do know the underlying facts from this. Everybody does. It’s been public for many years. There have been several prosecutors who have looked at this and have declined to prosecute. And there’s a reason for that. There’s a novel theory that they’re using to take this from a misdemeanor to a felony, which I think is a mistake. I don’t believe anybody’s above the law, and I believe that presidents or former presidents should be held accountable. But I also don’t think that you should be prosecuted because you’re a former president. And, at least with this indictment, until we see more, I have many concerns about this indictment. I don’t think it’s appropriate, but we’ll see if something more comes out.

St. George News: You’re for Gov. DeSantis in Florida. To the students just now, you talked about divisiveness and your hope that we can learn to disagree better. Some would say DeSantis has been divisive.

Cox: Well, unfortunately, we live in a very divisive political time right now. There’s no question about that. I think President Biden’s been very divisive on lots of different issues. And so I don’t get my perfect candidate. I don’t get someone who’s going to agree with me 100% on everything. But I am trying to get somebody who can win, which I think is important. And that’s one of my concerns with former President Trump, is that he lost the last election. We lost the Senate. We almost lost the House. We should have won the House. And so we keep losing, I’m looking for someone who can win. And Ron DeSantis won big in Florida. And he’s done some amazing things in Florida that I think are really impressive and I think would be really good for our country.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox sits with students during Q&A at Desert Hills High School, St. George, Utah, April 4, 2023 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

St. George News: You say one of your big initiatives is going to be disagreeing better. As far as divisiveness, have we not hit rock bottom?

Cox: I keep thinking we’ve hit rock bottom and then we find another level. So I do hope, and I’m very hopeful that we can set a better example over the course of the next year. I’m going to be running for office at the same time as the presidential race. And so I’m putting a lot of pressure to try to be better. And that’s going to be hard. I mean, I will admit, there’s a reason that negative politics works. There’s a reason that people do it. I’m just hoping that Utah can set a better example. 

St. George News: You talked to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy this morning along with other governors. What did you say to him and how did he respond?

Cox: I expressed the support for the people of Ukraine, from the people of Utah. That was really the focus of my message. Yesterday, I ran into some Ukrainian refugees in Beaver County at the Creamery. I talked to them about what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling and told them that I was going to be having this meeting with President Zelenskyy. And they asked me to express their love and their concern for the president and the people of Ukraine that are fighting right now. So I was able to do that on their behalf. It was just a really special moment, a special occasion for all of us. And his response, of course, was very gracious. 

St. George News: The Winter Olympics are possibly returning.  What would that mean for Southern Utah? And is there a red line in regard to public funding, state funding of the Olympics?

Cox: We’ll do great when it comes to the public funding piece. I mean, the last Olympics not only did we not lose any money, we ended up with $100 million to the positive. And we feel very confident that we can do that with these Games again, because now we have all of the venues, right? We’re one of the only places on Earth that kept all of the venues, kept them up to date. We’ve done a great job in making sure that we’re protecting the taxpayers of the state of Utah. So this will be a good thing for all of Utah, a great opportunity for people in Northern Utah, people in Southern Utah. It will mean a lot of people from all over the world who get to experience what we get to experience every day: This incredible state in which we live.

St. George News: We solicited questions from local politicians and leaders. One question was from Ivins Mayor Chris Hart who asked: As we have been experiencing an era of developer-dominated legislatures that chipped away at cities’ land-use authority, and you’re a former city guy. Are you willing to stand up to the Legislature and carefully view each of these bills that brush city authority away?

The Sugarloaf, also known as the “Dixie Rock,” as seen from downtown St. George, Utah, June 3, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Cox: Sure. And we have had those conversations. Every one of those bills is different than where they started because of our engagement with the legislature. And we are trying to find that balance. And the truth is we know that we need more housing. And there are some cities, not all cities, but there are some cities that aren’t good participants when it comes to doing their fair share to create new housing. And so making sure we do find that appropriate balance. And I think we’re getting there.

St. George News: Ilene Hacker, a leader with the Defending Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition, asked: If you get a bill that reinstates the Dixie State name and overturns Utah Tech, would you approve or veto that?

Cox: There won’t be a bill. There’s no push to do that. That’s not going to happen. So it’s not a question that needs to be answered. But look, we care desperately and deeply about the people of this great place. This is Utah’s Dixie, it is still Utah’s Dixie. We still have Dixie Tech, we have Dixie High School. The name change wasn’t really about the heritage piece of that. It was about what this school is going to be. Almost every university in the state of Utah has changed their name at some point to reflect what it is they’re accomplishing and what they’re trying to do. Dixie University was so confusing. No one outside of Utah, and half the people inside, had no idea what that was or where it was. They assumed it was in Georgia. So the question is, do we want it to be a small parochial school forever or do we want it to actually be something bigger and better? But I totally understand. I still call it Dixie University. It’s just part of, it’s ingrained in my system. But, yeah, there’s no push. And I don’t see any change coming anytime soon.

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