Gov. Cox signs controversial bills on trans surgeries, student vouchers

Jan 28, 2023, 10:30 AM | Updated: 3:00 pm
$400 million set aside for tax cut...
FILE: Snow piles up at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)
(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed two hot-button bills Saturday morning, HB215 and SB16, the first he has signed from the year’s legislative session.


HB215, gives teachers a pay raise and tied to providing funding for students in home study or private schools.

The bill establishes an up to $8,000  voucher for students who get an education outside of traditional public schools starting in the 2024-2025 school year, either for school at home or at a private education institution. It provides $42 million in state funding vouchers for the private education. The payments are sometimes titled scholarships, or education savings or vouchers.

The funding is said to apply to up to 5,000 students.

Combined with the private funding in the bill is a increase in public teacher salaries of $6,000 that many considered a leverage point to get political support for the bill. The increase of $4,200 of that would come in the form of a salary increase, and around $1,800 in benefits. Hearings on the bills just days ago were packed.

Organizations, including New Leaders for America, Utah PTA, and Utah Education Association , or UEA, spoke against the bill citing a list of reasons — including saying it could have a negative impact on public education. Teachers at multiple schools walked out of the classroom to voice opposition to the bill. Opposition said public funds should not be sent to private schools.

“When we are taking away scarce resources from public education and giving it to, or subsidizing, private schools – then we are creating opportunity gaps for our public education students,” Renée Pinkney, UEA President, said.

Cox issued the following statement after signing the bill:

“This bill strikes a good balance. More than 90% of parents support Utah schools and so do we. Our top priority this session has been a significant increase in teacher compensation and education funding. We commend the Legislature for supporting our teacher pay proposal which will help address the state’s teacher shortage and give Utah teachers the much-needed pay raise they deserve. We also appreciate that HB 215 gives Utah parents additional options to meet the needs of their families. School choice works best when we adequately fund public education and we remove unnecessary regulations that burden our public schools and make it difficult for them to succeed. We are especially appreciative of our teachers and education leaders who helped push for more accountability measures which were not included in the original bill.”

The Utah Black Roundtable strongly said it strongly opposes the passing of HB215.

A lobbyist who supports the bill was recorded saying the program is a step and she wants to “destroy public education” and that lawmakers do too. Allison Sorensen, the executive director of Education Opportunity 4 Every Child, a major player in the push for school vouchers, apologized for the comments. Several lawmakers denounced the comments.

“Let’s actually take the money out of the public school system,” Sorensen said in the leaked audio. “We’ll change the way we fund the program so that it literally is pulling that money straight from the school.”

“I can’t say this is a recall of public education even though I want to destroy public education,” she added. “The legislators can’t say that because they’ll just be reamed over the coals.”

“I can’t say this is a recall of public education even though I want to destroy public education,” she added. “The legislators can’t say that because they’ll just be reamed over the coals.”


SB16, bans gender-confirming surgeries and place a moratorium on puberty blockers for minors, also signed by Cox Saturday.

Gender-affirming surgeries are medical treatments that transgender and nonbinary people sometimes use to transition or alter their sexual characteristics.

The bill was recently changed by the Utah House and then approved by the Utah Senate, with changes, including immediate implementation after the governor’s signature, and specifies that an individual can bring a medical malpractice action related to procedures or treatment provided. This means if a person regrets a transgender-related surgery or treatment, they will have an easier path to sue the doctor who provided them care.

The American Medical Association has a long-established stance of opposing governmental opposition to medical care for transgender patients. Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla proposed banning breast enhancements for Utah teens as part of the bill but her amendment was denied in committee.

The bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to review medical evidence regarding hormonal transgender treatments and advise the Legislature accordingly.

It also requires the Division of Professional Licensing to create a certification for providing hormonal transgender treatments.

It requires health care providers to meet requirements before providing hormonal transgender treatments, prohibits providers from treating patients who were not diagnosed with gender dysmorphia before a certain date, prohibits sex characteristic surgical procedures on a minor.

Cox released the following statement regarding the signing of this bill.

Legislation that impacts our most vulnerable youth requires careful consideration and deliberation. While not a perfect bill, we are grateful for Sen. Kennedy’s more nuanced and thoughtful approach to this terribly divisive issue. More and more experts, states and countries around the world are pausing these permanent and life-altering treatments for new patients until more and better research can help determine the long-term consequences.

We will continue to push the Legislature for additional resources to organizations that work to help this important Utah community. While we understand our words will be of little comfort to those who disagree with us, we sincerely hope that we can treat our transgender families with more love and respect as we work to better understand the science and consequences behind these procedures.

Cox previously told KSL NewsRadio said he is concerned about the message the state is sending.

KSL NewsRadio’s Lindsay Aerts reported that Cox said it’s critical lawmakers get to know the people these bills impact if they are going to run this kind of legislation. He said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine, has done that work, while other lawmakers have not.

A number of bills regarding transgender youth were up for debate in 2023 including SB100, which would prohibit school districts from changing the student’s identity as it relates to gender without parental permission, and  SB93 which would prohibit changing the name or gender on a minor’s birth certificate.

“I know there are a lot of people pushing for this to happen. But the people pushing for it to happen are not those with children it will affect. The people with children this will affect are begging us not to do this,” Sen. Daniel Thatcher, a Republican from West Valley City said in debate.

After the bills passed Friday, Senate Democrats released a statement:

“We are deeply troubled by the Senate’s passage of S.B. 16, S.B. 93, and S.B. 100. As Democrats, we stand in firm opposition to any legislation that restricts access to life-saving health care for our most vulnerable youth. Additionally, we believe everyone should have the ability to amend their birth certificates to accurately display their name and identity without excessive barriers and intrusion from government. All children—including our transgender children—deserve equal opportunity and equal protection in their pursuit happiness. As stated by many elected officials in our state, our children deserve the pursuit of happiness. Like the many parents who courageously came to the Capitol this week to fight against these harmful polices, we will continue to advocate for the dignity and care of all our children.”

Bill sponsor Kennedy said he tried to do this bill justice…but the House had its way with it.

“I would bet every dollar in my bank account right now that this will be litigated. And at this point, it is going to be,” Kennedy said. “And we’ll have to allow additional steps in our societal process to make the terminations to where this will go.”


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Gov. Cox signs controversial bills on trans surgeries, student vouchers