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The head of a petition drive to remove the sales tax from food says there probably won't be enough signatures collected by the Friday deadline to force lawmakers to vote on the issue.

However, Independent Party leader Merrill Cook said he believes his political organization will gather the nearly 64,000 names needed to place the question before voters in the 1990 general election.The Independent Party, formed by Cook after he lost his bid for governor last year as a supporter of the failed tax initiatives, has made taking sales tax off food its goal.

For months, party members have been quietly circulating new initiative petitions that would let voters decide next November whether food sales should be taxed.

Like the tax-slashing initiatives that sparked the most aggressive campaign of the 1988 election, this latest initiative attempts to circumvent an uncooperative Legislature.

Lawmakers rejected a bipartisan proposal in 1989 that would have taken the sales tax off food and taken as much as $100 million from state coffers. Instead, taxpayers received more modest income tax cuts.

But a perhaps never-before-used provision in the state law can make the Legislature vote on the subject of an initiative petition if the names of enough registered voters are presented to the lieutenant governor.

To put an issue before the Legislature through the initiative petition process, the number of registered voters who sign must equal 5 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial race.

To put an issue on a general election ballot through the initiative petition process requires 10 percent. The percentages must be met in at least 15 of the state's 29 counties.

Cook has said he expected to get the more than 32,000 signatures required to force a vote of the Legislature. On Tuesday, he predicted the Independent Party would come close to that number, but not close enough.

He made that prediction despite his own whirlwind efforts earlier this month to sign up registered voters in eight counties - Juab, Beaver, Kane, Garfield, Wayne, Piute, Morgan and Rich.

"That's what I'd call a minor disappointment," Cook said of the probability the issue would not be put before lawmakers in January. "Frankly, we did not expect the Legislature to vote for it. We wanted the publicity."

After last year's defeats at the polls, supporters of the sales tax initiative likely will have to hustle to get the attention of Utahns this time around.

Cook and his followers hope that the estimated $300 million in surplus funds and revenues expected beyond current spending levels will convince voters that another tax cut is needed.

They argue that the surplus is there only because taxes were raised too high, not because the state's economy is improving. Voters rejected that idea along with the tax initiatives last year.

Gov. Norm Bangerter and legislators have made it clear they intend to divvy up the extra revenues among educators and others who have had to make do with less during the state's lean years.

The sales tax initiative supporters have until June to turn in the required number of signatures to county clerks for verification to qualify for a spot on the November 1990 ballot.

After the names on the petitions are checked to make sure they are those of registered voters, the petitions will be passed along to Lt. Gov. Val Oveson's office, which is responsible for counting them.

As of Tuesday, between 7,000 and 8,000 verified signatures on the sales tax initiative petitions had been turned in to the lieutenant governor's office, according to Deputy Lt. Gov. Dave Hansen.

Cook has raised concerns about the verification process, claiming clerks were throwing out as many as 40 percent of the names in some counties because the signer was registered by the petition-gatherers.

Hansen said clerks have been told by the lieutenant governor's office to process the voter registration forms turned in by the initiative supporters first, so that those signatures can be counted.

However, Hansen said clerks do have the option of adding the new voters to the rolls after the petitions are verified, meaning none of those names can be tallied as voters.