Merrill Cook says if Mike Leavitt or Stewart Hanson are elected governor instead of him, "I assure you taxes will go up."

Hanson says Cook and Leavitt aren't being honest when they promise "no new taxes" over the next four years, considering the sad shape of Utah's education system.And Leavitt says Cook's tax and budget proposals are nothing short of "irrational."

Six weeks to Election Day, and the final race for governor is definitely on - with little agreement among Republican Leavitt, Democrat Hanson and Independent Party candidate Cook.

"Well, at least Stewart and I agree on something - Mike is being dishonest (in talking about taxes)," Cook said.

"You can tell who's ahead in the polls," countered Leavitt, referring to his double-digit lead over Cook and Hanson, which results in both men taking him on in debates.

The latest exchange came Thursday during a hourlong debate before the West Valley Chamber of Commerce in the West Valley City Hall.

A few of the highlights:

- Leavitt openly disagreed with Gov. Norm Bangerter - who has endorsed Leavitt - over funding of a new state Tax Commission Building. In the closing day of the 1992 Legislature, Bangerter and a majority of lawmakers agreed the first $10 million of any surplus this year would go for the building - passing the measure over the objections of many conservative Republicans who didn't like the financing arrangements. Leavitt said as governor he would not allocate anticipated surplus funds that way, since they may never develop. "I'd have vetoed that ($10 million for the Tax Commission Building)," Leavitt said.

- Cook, who led the fight to remove the sales tax from food in 1990, said in the current economic climate of Utah he would not push for such a removal now. However, he added that state budgeters are deceptive in how they figure tax revenues. Cook maintains even though Bangerter's administration says there's only a $14 million surplus this year, "annually we're running $100 million surpluses" that are being hidden and then wasted.

"We can reform education, cut government spending and over time take the sales tax off food and reduce the (state's top) personal income rate from 7 percent to 5 percent," Cook said.

- Leavitt said Cook's budget and tax proposals are "irrational." "Stewart says we can raise taxes. I say no. We're in the top 10 most taxed states. The next governor will have his hands full bringing the state in with balanced budgets, but I'm confident I can do it. In some cases, I'll just have to say no (to more spending)."

"Irrational?" shouted Cook. "Mike thinks it's irrational to implement the Rosenblatt school district consolidation study (which would push the current 40 school districts into 25). Mike thinks it irrational to question bobsled, luge runs and speed ovals before we even know if we're going to win the Winter Olympics. He thinks it irrational to squeeze more money from education administration and get it into the classrooms, even though teacher salaries in Utah have dropped from 36th in the nation to 46th."

Hanson couldn't let Cook have all the fun with Leavitt. He jumped in to say that Leavitt has tried to paint him as a tax-and-spend Democrat. "I'm just being honest when I say I won't promise `no new taxes.' " George Bush and Bangerter both promised no new taxes, said Hanson. "And we got the biggest tax increases (at the federal and state level) we've ever seen. Come on," he said to Leavitt and Cook. "Be honest. No new taxes or revenues - not likely."