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Toll roads, taxes, public safety changes in Cox transition team reports

Posted at 1:55 PM, Dec 23, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — In a series of reports, Governor-elect Spencer Cox's transition team recommends some significant changes to state agencies.

The reports, made public on Tuesday night, are a part of a review he ordered after being elected to office. The governor-elect's transition team, made up of volunteers, reviewed each agency and made a number of staffing and policy recommendations. Some suggest consolidating state divisions and departments, as first reported by FOX 13 earlier this month, while others expand government.

"Lt. Gov.-elect Henderson and I are so impressed with the caliber of their work and we’re extremely grateful for the time and commitment they’ve shown to all residents of the state of Utah," Gov.-elect Cox said in a statement. "We look forward to working with our new team and the departments to evaluate the proposals."

Overall, the reports paint a picture of state employees who are dedicated to their jobs and work long hours for lower pay than they would get in the private sector. Some reports suggest pay increases to help stop an ongoing migration of qualified talent out of state government.

"We got a lot of feedback from these volunteers who said 'I had no idea what state government does,' and 'I had no idea how important what they do is to our economy and to our citizens.' This was a common theme through all the department reports," Lynne Ward, the governor-elect's transition team co-chair, said in an interview with FOX 13 on Wednesday.

The reports also recommend an increased effort to increase the government workforce's diversity (including expanding implicit bias training for state employees), more teleworking jobs and an emphasis on jobs in rural Utah.

"We have an incoming governor who’s from rural Utah, so it does stand to reason there would be more attention to that," Ward said. "The teleworking? Of course, there’s a good percentage of state government that’s teleworking to keep things moving for the citizens."

Transition team recommendations are just that — recommendations. Many policy shifts or agency shifts would require legislative action.

"Governor-elect Cox’s team reached out to Senate leadership, encouraging them to review the memos. Utah is known for being a well-managed state. Taking the time to find ways state agencies can work more efficiently to serve Utahns better is applauded," Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a statement to FOX 13. "This is an excellent opportunity to gain a better understanding of state government from a different perspective. The memos were made public yesterday, and we look forward to reviewing them and working with the new administration on recommendations over the coming months."

Here are some of the highlights from the reports of individual state agencies:

Utah Dept. of Administrative Services -

This agency oversees things like buildings, purchasing, and the state fleet of vehicles. The transition team report recommended more of an emphasis on teleworking. It also suggested they downsize and decentralize office space as a result. The report also suggested transitioning the state fleet to more electric vehicles.

The report recommended consolidating DAS and Utah's Department of Human Resources Management (the state's HR office). A separate report prepared by DHRM pushed back on that idea.

Utah Department of Agriculture & Food -

The transition team report noted that the agency has gone through four agriculture commissioners in the past five years (and a new one is coming next year). A blistering audit revealed problems within the agency. The transition team recommended it resolve those issues. It also suggested a re-examination of "Utah's Own," the locally produced food and goods initiative.

Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control -

There were no changes to Utah's alcohol control model recommended. But there could be a tweak to the seven-member commission (possibly three full-time commissioners). However, the agency does need more control of its budget to retain employees at its liquor stores. The transition team did also suggest the governor-elect review the issue surrounding the lack of bar licenses and whether the state should move forward with "to go" alcohol orders.

Utah Department of Commerce -

The report recommended more diversity in its workforce, as well as an evaluation of the fees the businesses pay (noting Utah is less "fee heavy" than other states). It also recommended an ongoing focus on whistleblower and consumer protection issues.

Utah Department of Corrections -

The big takeaways from the transition team's report (which identified a number of frustrations with the agency) included more input from the community, including people of color. It recommended making the Office of Victims of Crime a separate agency. There were also recommendations to further sentencing reforms and make reforms to fines and increase offender education options.

Governor's Office of Economic Development -

The transition team report called for a focus on quality of life issues. It also suggested more emphasis on rural Utah, perhaps even adding a "rural" cabinet member. There was even a suggestion that the agency be renamed to something else like Utah Office of Economic Opportunity, Governor’s Office of Economic Development & Opportunity, Utah Office of Economic Opportunity & Innovation or, Flourish Utah! (The exclamation point was in the report.)

Utah Department of Environmental Quality -

The report by the transition team identified a number of scientists leaving the agency, including stating: “Teaching science in public school is now more attractive than state employment.” It recommended more be done to stop turnover, as well as making statewide water policy a top priority for the Cox/Henderson administration.

Utah Department of Health -

Widespread praise was given to health department employees for their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We believe the people of Utah owe a great deal to the dedicated staff of UDOH for their tireless and dedicated work on COVID-19," the report said, though it acknowledged the agency was not immune to political tensions and pressure over the approach to the pandemic.

"Many Utahns continue to reject the basic public health guidance that would allow our economy, education and health systems to function. This isn’t a challenge of public health science but rather of national political leadership. Gov-elect Cox is widely seen as someone that has worked to overcome the divisive nature of our current political environment and can continue to do that – perhaps even working to bring national Republican voices together to challenge and overcome misinformation that undermines effective public health response," the report told the governor-elect.

It also warned that Utah statute requires someone in senior leadership be a medical director and UDOH is close to breaking the law with the retirement of senior leaders.

Utah Department of Heritage & Arts -

The transition team agreed with Director Jill Remington Love's suggestion that they get a name change. Why? Because the agency also handles issues with minority communities and the use of the word "heritage," when coupled with Native American issues (which falls under its umbrella) suggests tribes are a relic of the past when they are very much a part of Utah's present.

"As issues of racial inclusion and diversity have come to the forefront, we’ve been at the heart of that and I think it’s important the name of our department reflect that," Love told FOX 13 in an interview on Wednesday.

The report went further to tell Gov.-elect Cox to "consider a Cabinet-level position for Indian Affairs or one that evidences parity in governance." Love said she was unsure if they would have the resources (Utah's Division of Indian Affairs staff is three people, but each state agency has a tribal liaison).

"I think the tribes are better served from the resources that come from a larger department like ours," she said, adding: "I do think it’s important our director of Indian Affairs have direct access to the governor."

Utah Department of Human Services -

In a stunning report, the transition team found "some caseworkers work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet and even need government assistance."

"A state job should provide a living wage," the report said. "The 2020 legislature had allocated funds to help DHS address low pay, but those funds were withdrawn when COVID hit. Taking away those funds contributed to low morale in the department."

It recommended pay increases, some tweaks to the department and perhaps increased staffing.

Utah Department of Natural Resources -

The transition team recommended more be done to include rural Utah, including moving more employees there. When it came to a policy position, it offered this assessment: "The Great Salt Lake is an important issue to address." Indeed, it is becoming an emerging environmental issue that affects much of the state.

Governor's Office of Management and Budget -

The transition team's report noted the philosophies of GOMB's previous director, which included some dramatic shifts in how an agency functions.

"While virtually all we interviewed supported continuous operational improvements (looking within agencies to improve the quality of services and increase operational efficiency), many perceived the process used by GOMB as top-down and wanting for more agency input into the vision and 'realistic' goal setting. It would be beneficial for GOMB to be in tune with employees in the trenches and leaders on the front line in developing suggested goals or process improvements that would yield lasting results," the report said.

It also suggested improved relationships with the Utah State Legislature, as they represent the governor in budget negotiations.

Utah Board of Pardons & Parole -

Beyond wage increases and staffing increases (which the report noted with some urgency), there was a need for more diversity in representation for the agency that determines prisoner release. The transition team also uncovered a problem with the Utah Attorney General's Office.

"The AG represents the Board in lawsuits filed by inmates against the Board. The AG also represents the State before the Board in parole violation hearings. That the AG represents the Board and also appears in front of it creates a potential conflict. Additionally, the AG represents the Department of Corrections (DOC). The Board and DOC often have conflicting interests," the report said.

Utah Department of Public Safety -

DPS is another agency that suffers from low wages, the transition team noted. But the report made some big recommendations, including moving Utah's Division of Emergency Management and Peace Officer Standards & Training out from under the umbrella of the law enforcement agency.

"For DEM to successfully make Utah more disaster resilient, it must be (and be viewed as) a big picture, state level coordinating agency whose mission must be integrated into the work of every other state agency. DPS’s public safety role is focused primarily on law enforcement, which is only one relatively small piece of the statewide disaster preparation, response, recovery, and mitigation that DEM coordinates statewide," the report said.

POST, the agency that certifies and disciplines all police officers in Utah, should include more community representation and minority representation as it deals with law enforcement misconduct. That would require legislative action.

"In light of all the well-publicized issues surrounding law enforcement reform, moving POST should be done between inauguration and the first year of the Cox Administration, which will demonstrate the Cox Administration’s commitment to making law enforcement reform a high priority," the report said.

Reacting to the recommendations, DPS Commissioner Jess Anderson said in a statement to FOX 13:

"A transition of leadership is always a good time to look at organizations and processes and we welcome the opportunity to evaluate the recommendations provided by the Cox Transition team. Working together with Governor-elect Cox and Lieutenant Governor-elect Henderson, we have the ability to make a significant impact on public safety, establish trust and the well-being of people of the State of Utah."

Utah Tax Commission -

The transition team's report suggested the state isn't done with tax reform, given the bruising battles of earlier this year that sparked a citizen referendum.

"The Cox/Henderson administration will lead and manage tremendous growth and change in Utah’s economy. Future tax reform may address issues like (and certainly not be limited to) the declining motor fuel tax, growing service economy, changing severance revenue dynamics, and the ever-evolving e-commerce sector," the report said.

Utah Department of Technology Services -

The agency that handles all technology and cybersecurity needs for the state was praised for its work, but the transition team also recommended some restructuring. But it also acknowledged this is a tough agency to administer because it is competing with private sector (and a well-funded one at that) for talent.

"Recognizing that the state cannot compete on salary with Silicon Slopes for technical talent, the state needs to think creatively about how it can solve this problem," the report said.

Utah Department of Transportation -

Agency management was good, but the transition team in this report focused more on policy that could be implemented by the Cox/Henderson administration. It identified some areas including a "road user charge" or "vehicle miles traveled" concept instead of the traditional tax on gasoline. It also suggested more investment in a statewide electric vehicle infrastructure.

Toll roads could also return, under the transition team's report for policy considerations. It also recommended potentially using UDOT property and right of way as the backbone for "statewide fiber and broadband infrastructure efforts."

When it came to UDOT employees, one notation stood out: "Consider increase in pay to snowplow drivers/transportation techs and incident management workers. They are front-line workers providing necessary services to Utahns."

Utah Department of Workforce Services -

"Transparency in the possible consolidation of government departments, especially as the 2021 Utah Legislative session nears," the report said.

It did not identify what would be consolidated, but previously FOX 13 has reported on discussions of moving Medicaid services from UDOH to Workforce Services. The transition report for UDOH suggested the opposite — that services go to the state health department.

"Whether in DWS or a new department, build an innovation capability that focuses on the design, development, and implementation of initiatives that are focused on workforce development and the advancement of Utah’s key economic differentiator: the talent and availability of its workforce," the report recommended.