SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox has taken the oath and settled into his new office. Now comes the tricky part of governing.
In a one-on-one interview with FOX 13 on Tuesday, Utah's new governor outlined some of his priorities and goals for his administration. Immediately, he is dealing with a surge in COVID-19 cases from the Christmas holiday.
"We’re monitoring this surge very closely to see where we are. We will keep in place the mask mandates and the other orders that are in place right now," Gov. Cox said.
The governor said he will see if Utah's Department of Health recommends any further restrictions, but he wants to focus on expanding testing for the deadly virus in schools and colleges, as well as speeding up vaccine distribution in the state.
"What we’re considering is how we can increase testing. That positivity number is concerning to me and it shows we are not testing as much as we should be testing," he said, referring to a 32% positive rate for COVID-19 tests in Utah as of Tuesday.
This week, Gov. Cox will present a multi-billion dollar budget that will include big increases in spending for education and pay raises for many state employees. The governor proposes a budget, but the legislature passes one. He also said he would like to see increases in spending for rural Utah needs.
"Many, if not most of our rural towns have been unable to keep up with their road infrastructure," Gov. Cox said.
The governor has said he will propose some taxing changes. The Utah State Legislature proposed a massive overhaul of the state's tax code, including changes in the food tax, that sparked a citizen referendum and forced lawmakers to retreat on their plans.
While Gov. Cox told FOX 13 that tax reform ideas are a "long term project," what he is proposing would be "fairly minor." He was not planning to touch the food tax.
"There are some other tax changes that may be more palatable right now," Gov. Cox said.
The legislature will meet starting Jan. 19 with some hot-button bills that Gov. Cox will be expected to sign or veto. Asked about a few of them, he offered different levels of support.
The governor said he was supportive of a "constitutional carry" gun bill.
"I think there are now something like 17 states that have some sort of constitutional carry or permitless carry and so we would sign that bill," he told FOX 13.
The governor also said he is in discussions about some tweaks to Utah liquor laws. The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has proposed a "click and collect" online ordering system and hospitality groups are pushing for "to go" cocktail sales.
"If we can get legislative support, I would be supportive," Gov. Cox said.
The governor would not say where he lands on the idea of changing the name of Dixie State University in St. George. The university's board of trustees has proposed changing the name, and it has support from the Utah Board of Higher Education. Concerns have been raised about the name "Dixie" and ties to the Confederacy and the South.
"It’s a tough issue. It really is a tough issue. I understand that," Gov. Cox said.
Ultimately, any name change would wind up before the Utah State Legislature and the governor for approval.
"We do want to make our campuses more friendly and that’s important, and there are certainly connotations that exist with that term, the term of 'Dixie,' and my goodness we certainly want to hurt graduates, for people who don’t have any interactions or know what that means," Gov. Cox said. "I’m sure that as we work through this process we’ll get to the right solution."