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AMAX PROBLEM ISN'T DEAD YET, PANEL TOLD

The dreaded AMAX property tax issue isn't dead yet, legislative leaders were told Wednesday.

Though they thought they reached a compromise during the 1991 session - where AMAX dominated hours of debate and negotiation - lawmakers meeting in interim study committees were told that some state-assessed property owners are filing lawsuits against the state, something that wasn't supposed to happen and may destroy the agreement.AMAX is a very complex property tax problem that legislators thought they solved by changing state law on property assessment and taxation. Basically, owners of state-assessed properties - like mines, utilities and other large multicounty businesses - thought they were unfairly assessed. They sued the state.

New assessment formulas were devised - ones that may bring some political pain to lawmakers because home and local business owners will pay slightly higher property taxes. Part of the agreement was that the group of state-assessed property owners suing the state promised to withdraw their suits - at least that's what legislators thought.

But attorneys for that group of companies two weeks ago amended their original lawsuit, which is still pending in the courts, to protest taxes paid in 1990. 1990 taxes previously weren't being protested. That, some legislators believe, is a violation of the agreement.

Not so, said attorney David Detton, who represents the original group of state-assessed businesses. Detton says his clients agreed not to pursue their legal claims if the state didn't break its promise. They didn't promise to withdraw their suits, just hold them in abeyance.

In the meantime, several other state-assessed property owners - mostly coal mines that aren't Detton's clients and didn't agree to anything - have filed suit claiming unfair treatment, seeking tax equity on their 1990 taxes.

"Statements coming out of the governor's office led us to believe that if any state-assessed property owners sued, the governor would call a special session this year and have the (AMAX) law repealed. We had to move to protect our clients should that happen," Detton said. "I assure you, we will not break the agreement if the state doesn't."

Gov. Norm Bangerter, chief of staff Bud Scruggs and press secretary Francine Giani were not available Wednesday for comment.

Rep. John Valentine, R-Orem, a tax attorney who negotiated the agreement, recommended that lawmakers do nothing right now but wait and see what happens.

Some legislators suggested during the session that new, special taxes be levied against state-assessed property owners to make up for revenues shifted to homes and local businesses in changing the taxation formulas. That wasn't done. But in light of the coal companies' actions, lawmakers were talking Wednesday of imposing a severance tax on coal if the coal companies press their legal challenges to the AMAX compromise.