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UTAH TAXMAN TO TAP SHAQ, OTHERS

Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal are going to be paying Utah state income taxes.

No. They're not going to be playing for the Jazz, you wishful thinkers.For the one day a year the two showcases of the National Basketball Association will be playing and/or practicing in Utah, they'll file a Utah tax return under a new agreement worked out between major league professional team owners, players' associations and states and cities that impose income taxes.

All other professional athletes who play major league basketball, baseball, hockey and football will pay Utah taxes, too, should they play in the state. And Utah Jazz players will be paying income taxes to the states where they play.

Since Utah has only a professional basketball team, NBA players are probably the only major leaguers who will be paying state income taxes here. But if NFL exhibition games, pro baseball or hockey teams ever come to town, those major leaguers will be paying Utah income taxes, too.

The new Utah Tax Commission ruling doesn't apply to minor league sports, so the Buzz and other minor league players have nothing to worry about, yet.

"Of course, we assume that all people who earn income in the state - whether they earn it for one day or a year - file state returns, it's the current law," says Tax Commissioner Roger Tew.

But with no real way to track down the offenders - and with the cost of such tracking - up to now it hasn't been a high priority with state tax officials.

Tew wouldn't say if Jordan, O'Neal or any other pro athletes have filed Utah returns in the past. He doesn't know offhand but wouldn't say anyway, since tax returns are private.

"This new rule will not be a big revenue raiser for Utah," says Tew. Considering that Jazz players' salaries will now be subject to tax in other states, it might be a wash.

Actually, the Utah Tax Commission's new rule, formally adopted Monday, is really tit for tat because of what some other states and cities were doing.

Several years ago, Philadelphia, which has a city income tax, started pursuing professional athletes who played in the city of Not-So-Brotherly Love. Philadelphia has major league basketball, baseball, hockey and football teams. Put all the visiting millionaire athletes together, and city fathers figured they could get some big bucks. They started hounding the athletes for payment.

When other states and cities with income taxes started reacting - taxing visiting professional athletes as well - major league sport owners, player associations and local tax commissions decided to work out a formula fair to all.

The national accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand was doing work for most of the major leagues, so it took over the task. "This is probably the first time in the nation's history where the owners of major league baseball, basketball, hockey and football, their players' associations and the local state and city officials all agreed on something. We're actually pleased with that," says Tew.

Retroactive to Jan. 1, pro athletes saw a special withholding on their paychecks. The formula is complicated, says Tew. It is based on when a visiting team hits town, whether they come in a day early and have a practice session, whether there are playoff games, even exhibition games. For example, major league baseball players (except for this year) usually play for more than a month in their spring season camps, far away from their home stadiums.

There's no state income tax in Florida and Texas. And almost every state has a different state income tax rate - Utah's is 7.2 percent. "For major leaguers in Florida and Texas, they are definitely going to be paying more (income tax). Of course, they should have been paying (local state income taxes during visiting games) all along. And we assume they were obeying all the local laws," Tew says with a smile. "But the problem was, how do we (in Utah or any other state) really collect that tax without withholding? Now we have withholding (from players' paychecks), and so it is done for us."

By the way, the new agreement only covers players. Visiting coaches - even if they're making millions of dollars a year like New York Knicks coach Pat Riley - and league referees aren't covered under the withholding plan.

"Of course, they will still be paying (visiting) income taxes as the (Utah) law already requires," says Tew.

Yeah, right. Someone be sure to mention that to Riley the next time he's in town.