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1ST SALVOS TOSSED IN FOOD TAX FIGHT

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Both sides came out swinging in the fight to take sales tax off food the same day state officials announced that enough signatures have been gathered to put the question on the November ballot.

Gov. Norm Bangerter announced at his monthly press conference on KUED-TV Thursday that he would not only vote against the initiative himself but would also cut government programs if it passes.The governor said he would not ask taxpayers to come up with more money to make up the estimated $90 million in revenues the state would lose if sales tax were no longer charged on food purchases.

"I have no intention of replacing it. I'll make the cuts," Bangerter said. "I predict the people won't be very happy with those cuts and there'll be a lot of heartburn over where they come from. (But) people have to take responsibility for their votes."

Merrill Cook, chairman of the Independent Party that is backing the initiative, didn't like the way the governor stated his opposition and is betting that voters won't either.

"I think that was a very threatening tone and I don't think people will buy that," Cook said. He believes neither tax increases nor cuts may be needed if the initiative is approved.

"We're going to make surplus, surplus, surplus the issue," Cook said. He expects future Legislatures will face a dilemma similar to what lawmakers did this year - having $300 million more to spend than they did in 1989.

But Bangerter warned Thursday that he's "never seen too much surplus to deal with the needs and desires of the public" and outlined a number of other needs facing the state, including education, social services and highway maintenance.

The governor said his statements were not meant as a threat. "All I want to do is make sure the public understands that if you take money away, you take services away."

The debate began even before Lt. Gov. Val Oveson made it official Thursday morning that the initiative will appear on the general-election ballot in November.

To earn a spot on the ballot, Independent Party members and other initiative supporters collected the signatures of more than 69,000 qualified voters during a statewide petition drive that began last year.

According to Cook, they will end up with more than 125,000 signatures. Many were rejected by county clerks as not belonging to qualified voters and so could not be certified by Oveson.

Oveson praised their effort and Cook praised the lieutenant governor's office for certifying that enough qualified signatures had been collected well in advance of the July 2 deadline.