SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Republican governor on Saturday signed bills that ban youth from receiving gender-affirming health care and allow families to receive scholarships to pay for education outside the public school system, both measures that are part of larger nationwide movements.
Gov. Spencer Cox, who had not taken a public position on the transgender care measure, signed it a day after the Legislature sent it to his desk. Utah's measure prohibits transgender surgery for youth and disallows hormone treatments for minors who have not yet been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. The state's Republican-dominated Legislature prioritized the ban and considered a first draft of the measure less than 10 days ago, two days after the Legislature opened this year's session Jan. 17.
Cox's approval of the bill comes as lawmakers in at least 18 states consider similar bills targeting health care for young transgender people.
Cox explained in a statement that his decision was based on his belief that it was prudent to pause "these permanent and life-altering treatments for new patients until more and better research can help determine the long-term consequences."
"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," he said.
Among the critics is the ACLU of Utah, which on Friday urged Cox to veto the bill.
In its letter to Cox, the civil rights organization said it was deeply concerned about "the damaging and potentially catastrophic effects this law will have on people's lives and medical care and the grave violations of people's constitutional rights it will cause.
"By cutting off medical treatment supported by every major medical association in the United States, the bill compromises the health and well-being of adolescents with gender dysphoria. It ties the hands of doctors and parents by restricting access to the only evidence-based treatment available for this serious medical condition and impedes their ability to fulfill their professional obligations," the letter said.
The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Mike Kennedy, a Republican family doctor has said government oversight is necessary for vital health care policy related to gender and youth.
Cox also signed another measure that would give students school-choice style scholarships to attend schools outside the public education system. The bill also increased teacher pay and benefits in an effort to ease the state's teacher shortage.
At least a dozen other states are considering similar legislation in what has emerged as a landmark year for school choice battles. The debates have inflamed teachers' unions and resurfaced concerns about efforts to gradually privatize public education. If enacted, they could transform the nature of state government's relationship with the education system and deepen contrasts between how going to school looks in many red versus blue states.
The Utah measure allocates $42 million in taxpayer funds to pay for scholarships so students can attend private schools. Roughly 5,000 students would receive $8,000 scholarships, which is roughly double the state's "weighted pupil unit" funding that follows students to their schools. In an attempt to appease staunch opposition from the state's teachers' union, the bill also includes $6,000 in salary and benefits for Utah teachers.
Cox' statement explaining his decision focused mainly on the increased teacher pay while portraying the measure as "striking a good balance."
"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," Cox said.