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Who will oppose removing the sales tax from food?

That question is rumbling through the state's political halls these days. Of course, Gov. Norm Bangerter, a Republican, has said he's against the measure that Merrill Cook's Independent Party has gotten on the November ballot via initiative petitions. Bangerter says the state can't afford the estimated $90 million loss in state revenues.And while others will certainly stand beside the governor, most of those the Deseret News talked to believe there won't be the massive, all-inclusive effort to defeat the food sales tax initiative this year that was formed against the tax limitation/tax cutting initiatives of 1988.

If you recall, in 1988 various groups and representatives from the Republican and Democratic parties formed a large umbrella organization - Taxpayers For Utah - which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat the initiatives.

It worked. The tax rollback, property tax/state government growth limitation and private school initiatives all failed at the polls, even though they shared considerable citizen support early in the election season.

Removing the sales tax from food is even more popular. According to the latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, 68 percent of all Utahns support removing the food tax, just a slightly higher approval rating than the 1988 initiatives enjoyed in April of that year.

But there are a number of differences between the 1988 initiatives and this year's effort to remove the food sales tax. Not the least of those differences is who may oppose the food sales tax and how they organize.

"I haven't received a call on this (sales tax off food) issue. If there was a concerted effort starting, I think I would," says local attorney Jim Jardine. Jardine was one of the key opponents of the 1988 initiatives. He was one of the designated debaters who argued against Cook and other tax protesters. And he served as the finance director - in charge of fund raising - for Taxpayers For Utah.

"There will be opposition to removing the sales tax from food, no doubt about it," said Jardine. "But if I had to guess now, I'd say it will be more fragmented."

The state Republican Party will likely stay neutral on the food tax, says Chairman Richard Snelgrove. The state Democratic Party, which has called for the tax removal in the past, hasn't decided yet how it will approach the issue. But Chairman Peter Billings Jr. says he may well recommend that the party support the removal of sales tax from food if other money - and that could mean a tax increase somewhere else - is found so state programs aren't cut. (See accompanying story).

Likewise, the Utah Education Association hasn't decided what it will do, although UEA officials think the teacher association will oppose the measure. The Utah Public Employees Association, the largest state employee union, hasn't announced a stand, says acting director Nancy Sechrest, and may not until August. "However, if the lost revenue from the tax isn't made up in some way, I think we'd have to oppose it," she adds.

Jack DeMann of the Utah League of Cities and Towns says his group has no official position yet. "But cities and towns are in tough financial shape and certainly couldn't afford to lose $16-20 million the (sales tax on food) brings in to all local governments."

The Utah Taxpayers Association, which usually supports tax cuts, hasn't decided its position, says spokesman Howard Stephenson. "In 1980 we opposed removing the sales tax from food because we feared a tax shift to another tax. We didn't believe there would really be an overall reduction of taxes."

Removing the sales tax from food was also placed on the 1980 ballot via citizen initiative petition. Opposition arose from various groups, including teachers and public employees. Utah government was facing severe budget constraints then - just opposite of the record surpluses enjoyed this past year - and the measure was defeated at the polls.