Utah Democrats on Saturday formally endorsed removing the sales tax from food, but not before a number of delegates to the state convention said social services and education will be harmed by such a tax reduction.
Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis, the keynote speaker, broke with his previous ambivalence over the sales tax issue, urging delegates and Utahns to pass the measure."As a mayor, losing the revenue generated by the food tax will be difficult - $2 million to Salt Lake City alone. But as a Democratic mayor, I know that this regressive tax must be eliminated and replaced with a fairer method for raising needed revenues," DePaulis told a cheering convention in Cottonwood High School.
The Democratic platform says the food tax must come off but with the proviso that other taxes be raised if needed so state and local government programs aren't harmed.
Delegates had a lively debate over whether to endorse the food-tax initiative - which was placed on November's ballot by Merrill Cook's Independent Party of Utah.
In the end, Democrats stood by their mayor, the way Republicans stood by their governor a week ago.
Last week, GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter let it be known that he wanted the state Republican Convention to stay neutral on the food tax - not take a stand in the state platform. Delegates agreed. Bangerter personally is opposed to removing the sales tax from food, saying the state can't afford the $90 million loss in revenue and vowing to cut programs and not raise other taxes if the food-tax reduction passes at the polls.
Saturday, former Democratic Gov. Scott M. Matheson led the charge in getting delegates to support the food tax initiative. Several weeks ago, Matheson and Democratic Chairman Peter Billings Jr. told the press that the party's Policy Commission, with Matheson as co-chairman, would make such a recommendation.
Matheson led the debate, addressing the caucus of Utah Public Employee Association member delegates in the morning and giving the closing arguments before the whole convention. Even though the board of directors of the UPEA, the state's largest government union, opposes removing the sales tax from food, Matheson convinced the Democratic UPEA caucus to vote for the sales-tax removal.
Other caucuses in the convention voted to support the initiative. Even the Utah Education Association caucus decided to stay neutral on the Democratic plank endorsing the food tax removal.
Davis Education Association President Joel Briscoe, a state delegate, made the motion that the platform be changed from direct endorsement of the food tax removal initiative to the concept that the tax be removed at some time - a traditional stand for the Democrats.
But Matheson objected to the change. "This (food-tax removal) is only the start of a massive overhaul of Utah's tax structure," the former governor said in closing the platform debate. "The Republicans won't address tax fairness. We must. Merrill Cook's approach is one-dimensional - cut taxes. We're offering solutions to harming programs. Finally, in the 1990 political races, this is a real live, solid issue. Remove this endorsement (from the platform) and we're left with pablum. I'd hate to see the Republicans bluff us like that."
Said Billings: "I know some very good Democrats are opposed (to the food tax removal). The reason: They're afraid. Afraid of Norm Bangerter's threats to slash programs. Well, Norm Bangerter's threats are old and familiar. We've always had threats against those who sought justice. Whites threatened blacks, men threatened women, and employers have threatened employees. Go ahead, threaten us. Some may be frightened. But the public is watching and won't stand for it."
Also, delegate Verdun Fonnesbeck said, "We'll have the money (to replace that lost by removing the food tax). We've had plenty of money for pumping salt water (from the Great Salt Lake), plenty of money for the Olympics. Besides, those rich people can't eat more food than we poor people."
When the standing vote was taken, those in favor of endorsing the food-tax removal far outnumbered those who opposed it.
No candidate ballots were cast at the convention.
T. John Baer, a semi-retired Moab rancher, withdrew from the contested 3rd District Democratic congressional race Friday evening, leaving Bill Orton the uncontested nominee. Since that was to be the only contested race at the convention, all the Democratic candidates were nominated by acclamation.
Democratic candidates nominated at the state convention: 1st Congressional District: Kenley Brunsdale
2nd Congressional District: Wayne Owens
3rd Congressional District: Bill Orton
Senate District 13: E.G. Mantes Jr.
Senate District 18: Winn Richards
House District 4: Frank Prante
House District 13: Joe Hull
House District 54: Jean Stauffer
House District 69: Ray Nielsen
House District 70: Mikie Dmitrich
House District 73: David Wilson
House District 74: Ken Sleight