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INITIATIVE’S BACKERS KEEP LOW PROFILE

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Don't call them tax protesters.

The supporters of 1988's failed tax initiatives never liked that label, and now, as a political party, they are striving harder than ever to appear mainstream.And that makes them all the more difficult to combat, according to opponents of a new initiative that would remove the sales tax from food purchases if approved during the November general election.

So far, there is no organized opposition to the initiative that was put on the ballot through the low-key efforts of the Independent Party and its chairman, Merrill Cook.

Only Gov. Norm Bangerter, the Utah Public Employees Association, the state Board of Regents and some local government leaders have come out publicly against the initiative.

Most of the groups that formed Taxpayers For Utah to oppose the three tax-cutting initiatives that Cook and his followers got on the 1988 ballot have yet to take a stand on this year's initiative.

Cook said that's just the way he planned the campaign.

"We're going to be just a little smarter this time," Cook said shortly after the initiative qualified for the ballot in June, describing his goal as being "to create an image of normal everyday Utahns."

The image-building started more than a year ago, when Cook replaced former radio talk-show host Mills Crenshaw as the spokesman for the tax-cutting movement.

Cook had run unsuccessfully for governor as an independent candidate supporting the tax initiatives, and longtime conservative activist Greg Beesley was in charge of the Tax Limitation Coalition.

But it was Crenshaw who became the most vocal figure in the tax initiatives campaign. His daily radio talk show helped stir listeners into action - whether signing petitions or protesting during the Legislature.

Cook doesn't want a repeat of one of the most memorable scenes that Crenshaw helped create. Tens of thousands of Utahns waved their fists and shouted, "No more taxes" at lawmakers from the steps of the Capitol.

This time around, support has been built quietly. For example, anti-tax signs were not allowed on the tables where signatures were solicited for the initiative petitions.

"If you get too boisterous, you make your own opposition," Cook said, promising the campaign would stay low-key until about Labor Day, when he hopes to begin an advertising campaign that he'll likely help fund.

Opponents of taking the sales tax off food will surely also be organized by then and running advertisements of their own. But just what their strategy will be remains to be seen.

Although GOP legislative leaders suggested putting a second question on the general election ballot, which would ask voters how they would make up the estimated $113 million loss, the idea has been rejected by the governor.

No one expects the same type of campaign that defeated the 1988 initiatives. At that time, community leaders from both the private and public sector warned that those measures simply went too far.

There is not likely to be such widespread agreement over taking the sales tax off food, which would cut state and local revenues by only about one-third as much as the 1988 initiatives.

Democrats and Republicans already disagree on whether the sales tax should be removed from food, with the state's GOP governor and Legislature pledging to cut programs instead of raising other taxes.