Gov. Cox signs bills to ban transgender health care for youth, funds $42 million in school vouchers


Gov. Spencer Cox signed two hotly debated bills Saturday: one that would create the largest school voucher program in state history, and another that would ban most gender-affirming health care for transgender youth.

The controversial measures, which drew protest and debate since they were introduced are the first two bills Cox has signed this legislative session, his office said.

In signing the SB16 ban into law, Cox acknowledged it raised a “horribly divisive issue” but said “experts, states and countries around the world are pausing these permanent and life-changing treatments,” in anticipation of new research. He also pledged to push for more resources for organizations that support transgender youth.

“While we understand that our words will be of little comfort to those who disagree with us,” he said in a statement released Saturday, “we sincerely hope that we treat our transgender families with more love and respect can treat while we work to understand the science and consequences behind these procedures.”

He also said HB215, which sets aside $42 million in taxpayer funds to help families pay tuition at private schools, “has a good balance.” The program will give Utah parents “additional options to meet the needs of their families,” he said.

Cox praised “teachers and education leaders who helped push for more accountability measures that were not included in the original bill,” and thanked lawmakers for the teacher pay raises that were included.

Here’s what the measures will do.

Transgender medical treatment and procedures

SB16 was sponsored by Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, and it prohibits doctors from prescribing hormone therapy for minors diagnosed with “gender dysphoria,” a medical diagnosis of mental distress caused by a conflict between a person’s gender identity and the gender assigned they were assigned at birth.

With the ban in place, the bill states, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services will look at data surrounding the use of those medical treatments and make recommendations for policy changes to lawmakers. It does not set a deadline for the completion of that analysis.

The Utah Senate approved the bill on Friday by a 20-8 vote. Any veto would likely have been overridden by lawmakers, as the bill passed with more than two-thirds support in the House and Senate.

Cox vetoed a bill last year that would have barred transgender girls from participating in school sports that match their gender identity. At the time, Cox wrote an emotional four-page letter to lawmakers explaining his veto, writing that only four transgender children played high school sports in Utah out of 75,000 total student-athletes.

“Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” Cox wrote in the letter. “I don’t understand what they’re going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can significantly reduce suicide.”

Last year’s bill originally created a commission charged with evaluating whether a transgender athlete could participate in a school sport. It was amended to ban transgender girls from women’s sports on the last day of the session, and Cox’s veto was later overridden by the Utah Legislature in a special session in late March. This year’s bill was signed into law just nine days into the legislative session.

The ban on hormone treatments for transgender youth applies only to new patients, and took effect immediately when Cox signed the bill.

School certificates

HB215 was sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, and appropriates $42 million in taxpayer funds to send students to private schools. The bill also includes a $6,000 salary and benefit increase for teachers across the state as a bargaining chip, so public school educators will see bigger paychecks starting this fall.

Vouchers can be labeled as tax credits, tax rebates, education savings accounts, backpack financing, or, as in this proposal, scholarships. They’re all the same concept – and they work by taking money collected from taxpayers and putting it aside in a voucher fund.

This money is then allocated to individual students, who use it to fully or partially cover their attendance at a private school. This creates a funding dilemma for public schools, because if children leave public schools for private schools, public schools get less funding.

Last year, Cox opposed a similar bill with caveats that were not fully addressed in the version that now passed.

“Our top priority this session has been a significant increase in teacher compensation and education funding,” Cox said in his statement. “… 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.”

The controversial proposal was pushed forward with startling speed — and despite the outcry and opposition of teachers and nearly every education organization in Utah. The Utah Education Association pledged in a statement Thursday that it would “explore every available option to reverse this harmful legislation that puts the future of public education at risk.”

The Legislature will have the chance to change or reconsider the bill in its session next year, which will come before the scholarships begin in fall 2024, but teacher pay raises will come in fall 2023.