Utah Gov. Spencer Cox pledged to veto a transgender-sports bill after Republicans passed a last-minute overhaul, replacing a state eligibility panel with an outright ban on male-born competitors in female athletics.
The Republican governor said Friday he was “very surprised” by the substitute language approved just hours before the end of the 2022 legislative session, but he left the door open to revisiting the issue next year.
“We had a deal. We were this close to getting the right thing done, and at the last minute this change was introduced, a complete ban,” Mr. Cox told KATV-TV in Salt Lake City. “We’ve never talked about it, we’ve never debated it, we’ve never had any public input on it.”
He added that “we’ll veto it and we’ll go back and we’ll have this discussion and we’ll give them an opportunity to do it another time.”
The Utah Eagle Forum launched a campaign Monday urging Mr. Cox to sign House Bill 11. But if he follows through with a veto, it will mark the second year in a row that the legislature has tried but failed to address the issue of biological males in female sports.
The Friday night vote was 46-29 in the House and 16-13 in the Senate. Both totals would fall short of a veto override.
The legislation would have established a special commission to evaluate the eligibility of male-born athletes seeking to participate in middle and high school female sports, a first-of-its-kind compromise supported by Mr. Cox.
Under the newly configured bill, the commission would kick in only if the courts reject state laws barring male-born competitors from female athletics. Federal judges have blocked such laws in Idaho and West Virginia pending the outcome of legal challenges.
Utah state Sen. Dan McCay, the Republican who proposed the amendment, cited concerns about fairness for female athletes, including his own four daughters.
“I think this is an effective policy to put a pin in this debate and leave it there before we see a lot of uptick in transgender females participating in sports,” Mr. McCay said on the Senate floor.
Equality Utah called the 11th-hour change “a betrayal of Utah’s LGBTQ community” and thanked the governor for “defending transgender children.”
Republican state Rep. Kera Birkeland, the bill’s House sponsor, said Saturday she would try again next year.
“While H.B. 11 did not play out how I expected or intended, I do not want to undermine the fact that I have poured my heart and soul into finding a way to balance protecting Utah’s female athletes with inclusivity and acceptance for the past two years and will continue to do so,” she said on Facebook.
Mr. Cox would not be the first GOP governor to veto a women’s sports bill. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed a ban last month on biological males in girls’ and women’s sports, nearly a year after vetoing a similar measure over concerns about an NCAA backlash.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum axed such a measure last year, saying there was no example of a male-born athlete seeking to compete in girls’ sports in the state.
Mr. Cox also indicated that it wasn’t an issue in Utah because the state has only four such transgender athletes and “they’re not breaking any records.”
“I care deeply about women’s athletics as well as the LGBTQ community and our trans athletes,” he said. “There’s only four of them, and they’re awesome kids. They’re not breaking any records. I just want that community to know, look, we care about you, we love you, it’s gonna be OK, we’re going to get through this together.”
Advocates for women’s sports argue that biological females are deprived of not only titles and championships, but also spots on teams and playing time when forced to compete against male-born athletes.
Eleven states have passed bills prohibiting biological males from competing in female sports, most recently Iowa, where Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill last week that applies to both high school and collegiate sports.
An Indiana bill that would bar male-born athletes from K-12 scholastic sports awaits the decision of Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has not said whether he will sign the measure.