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BANGERTER HAS STAKED OUT TAX TERRITORY

Utahns will have the removal of sales tax from food on November's ballot. Gov. Norm Bangerter says he'll oppose it, ask citizens to vote against the measure and, should it pass, cut the estimated $90 million the tax brings in from state budgets with no consideration of raising some other tax.

Bangerter's stand brings up some interesting political considerations.First of all, I can understand why he has taken this position. There are political and personal reasons for it.

On the personal side, Bangerter has no affection for Merrill Cook and the tax protesters. Cook and his new Independent Party of Utah gathered the sales tax removal signatures and are the main supporters of the move. Cook, you recall, jumped from Bangerter's Republican Party in 1988 and ran against Bangerter as an independent candidate for governor. Conservative tax protesters flocked to Cook's candidacy and embarrassed Bangerter in the GOP state convention that year.

They butted heads numerous times before Bangerter won re-election with 40 percent of the vote. Democrat Ted Wilson got 38 percent and Cook got 21 percent. Bangerter says he would have won the election whether Cook was in the race or not, but Cook's presence certainly resulted in Bangerter being a minority governor - with less than 50 percent of the vote.

So Bangerter certainly doesn't want to support anything Cook supports. But the politics of this ballot issue outweigh personal feelings. Bangerter doesn't believe the state can afford a $90 million tax reduction. Cook's petition says nothing about making up the sales tax loss, which programs should be cut or which other taxes raised.

That's by design, Cook says. To clutter the main issue at hand - removing the sales tax from food - with tax increases or program reductions would only harm the central effort.

Bangerter's response is to say he won't support any offsetting tax increases. He says that a vote for the sales tax removal means citizens want to reduce government programs. Thus, Bangerter's stand will pit the tax removal effort against state needs - whether education, social services, health or public safety.

That's a logical political move. After the public relations fiasco Bangerter suffered when he proposed large tax increases in 1987, it certainly wouldn't serve him well politically to take a wishy-washy stand on sales-tax-off-food, find the measure pass in November, then have to suggest tax increases to the 1991 Legislature to offset the revenue loss.

That would really label Bangerter, who considers himself a responsible conservative politician, as a tax increaser.

But what happens if citizens vote for the tax removal anyway? Where does that leave the governor?

Ideally, governors should be leaders, problem-solvers. How responsible would it be for Bangerter to recommend to legislators that state programs be slashed when there could be viable alternatives - alternatives he refuses to explore because he painted himself into a corner so early on?

For example, over the past two years the governor and GOP leaders have reduced the number of Utahns who pay state income tax - taking poorer citizens off the tax rolls completely - reduced the tax rate and restored half of the federal deduction on state taxes. In short, they've significantly reduced the state income tax.

But they haven't rebracketed the tax to accommodate inflation. The result is that more than 70 percent of Utahns pay the same tax rate. In essence, Utah has a flat-rate income tax. Few states do this. Most have a progressive income tax - the more one earns, the greater the tax rate.

In his large 1987 tax-hike request, Bangerter suggested rebracketing the income tax. That idea went nowhere and he has refused to revisit the issue.

Rebracketing the income tax has been a major point with Democratic legislators. They want it. It would be difficult for Bangerter to suggest that his GOP colleagues in the Legislature do what the opposition wants. But it makes sense to consider that very thing.

Other taxes could be looked into as well. The state currently doesn't levy a statewide property tax, although it has that authority.

If he refuses to consider rebracketing the income tax or impose the hated property tax, Bangerter could consider changing state income tax deductions. That would be one way to get people with school-age children to pay more income tax. And the income tax, by constitutional law, all goes directly to support public education.

So, Bangerter has staked out his territory. We'll see what he does if 50 percent plus one of voting Utahns - 10 percent more than voted for him for governor in 1988 - want the sales tax removed from food and later clamor about reductions in state programs.