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WE CAN AFFORD TO CUT FOOD TAX, 4 UTAHNS SAY

In 1990 Utahns rejected a citizens initiative to remove the sales tax from food. Now, five years later, at least four legislators - three Republicans and one Democrat - want the sales tax off.

And they have nearly 10 years of record state surpluses to back up their demands that state government can afford cutting the much-hated tax.But considering that Utah faces hundreds of millions of dollars in road construction and repair, millions in water development needs and a governor - Mike Leavitt - who led the effort in 1990 to defeat the food-tax removal, the lawmakers' efforts will be an uphill fight next year.

Reps. Evan Olsen, Jordan Tanner and Steve Barth and Sen. Charles Stewart are all planning to introduce bills that would remove the state sales tax from food. Barth, the lone Democrat, has tried this before, and again is looking at a phased-in removal of the tax. Republicans Tanner and Stewart also think phase-in removal may be best.

But conservative Republican Olsen says it should be cold turkey - take off the state's 5-cent sales tax on food items in one swoop. "It would cost about $110 million. I give the effort a 50-50 chance of passing the 1996 Legislature," says Olsen.

It may be tough to swallow the $110 million drop in revenues. "But we could do it (in state government). You learn to make do (with less money) if you need to," says the Cache County rancher and farmer.

Olsen, Tanner and Stewart are just three of several conservative Republicans who have climbedaboard the food-tax removal wagon. A 20-year veteran of the House, Olsen didn't support the citizen initiative of 1990 - put together by Merrill Cook and his Independent Party of Utah.

"But I've changed my mind. You know me. I want to cut all taxes. I didn't favor (eliminating the food tax) five years ago. But with all these surpluses we've been having, we can afford it. I'd like to do the food tax and property taxes. But since we just cut the property tax, now is the time for food," says Olsen. Utah is the only Western state to tax unprepared food items, he adds.

"I have never opposed the concept of removing sales tax from food," Leavitt said in a statement issued by his office Tuesday. "I opposed the referendum several years ago because other taxes would have been increased to cover the lost revenues or drastic program cuts would have been necessary."

With this year's $75 million surplus, over the past 10 years state government has run combined surpluses of more than $750 million. Most of the cash has been spent via supplemental budget acts, although state income taxes were reduced some, property taxes cut this past year by $90 million and an automatic $50 million homeowner property tax increase avoided.

The $750 million surpluses came even as state government set records in growth. The state budget has gone from $2.5 billion a year to $5 billion in a decade. Recently, Leavitt announced that most state departments would be held to 2.5 percent growth next year. (Budgets have been increasing 5 percent to 8 percent a year).

Leavitt added, "It's far too early to project what the best options are, we are only one month into the current fiscal year."

But that doesn't satisfy Tanner. "I totally reject that (Leavitt's) 2.5 percent growth cap isn't across the board. Especially the cap should apply to employee salaries - and the governor exempts those," Tanner said.

Capping employee salaries, the Department of Corrections and other "exempted" departments "would ensure that we have enough money to phase in removal of the food tax," he said.