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Huntsman defends plan to kill food tax

GOP gubernatorial hopefuls vie for title of most conservative

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OGDEN — Political campaign years always feature much discussion about taxes, but gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. has upped the ante this year with his proposal to eliminate sales tax on food.

The proposal is a fat target for Huntsman's seven Republican opponents, given that eliminating food sales tax would reduce state revenues by $150 million a year. But Huntsman defended his position in a candidate forum Thursday at the Eccles Conference Center in Ogden.

"I have been criticized by a lot of people who call themselves Reagan Republicans for identifying a highly regressive tax and wanting to do something about it," he said.

Huntsman offered no specifics Thursday on how the revenue would be made up, focusing instead on how he would phase in the program, eliminating tax first on food staples like flour and sugar.

Taxes in general were a hot topic at the forum. Sponsored by the Utah Association of Counties — a heavily Republican organization — and with Democrat Scott Matheson absent, each of the eight GOP candidates generally vied to be seen as the most Republican, economically conservative, tax-cutting candidate there.

"I believe government governs best that governs least," incumbent Gov. Olene Walker said. She stressed her experience as governor the past five months, adding that "we will accomplish much more before the end of this year."

There were limited exceptions to the tax-cut fervor. House Speaker Marty Stephens, while saying he would hold the line on most taxes (he has twice been named Taxpayer Advocate of the Year by the Utah Taxpayers Association), made no bones of the fact that he would support raising gasoline taxes to improve the state's road system.

"I don't think the state necessarily needs to increase revenues," he said. "It needs to look at how the tax burden is spread between sales, income, property, gasoline and other taxes."

Board of Regents Chairman Nolan Karras, when asked about funding education in future years — a worsening crisis in baby-happy Utah — acknowledged the problem and used it to emphasize his campaign theme of dealing with tough problems straight up.

Nevertheless, "I don't believe you can take the seventh-highest-taxed state in the nation, at least by some measures, and tax our way out of this."

How, then, to raise money needed to run the state? It's all about jobs, Merit Medical Systems CEO Fred Lampropoulos said.

"For the last 25 years I've been working on my economic development plan, and that is to create jobs in Utah," Lampropoulos said. "I've created thousands of jobs."

Stephens said he would tap a neglected state resource — residents' high level of foreign language skills — to help build the economy, while Huntsman said he would focus less on local businesses "outsourcing" work than "insourcing" work from other areas.

Former congressman Jim Hansen focused his remarks on saving Hill Air Force Base from closure, working in other ways with the federal government, and his "experience, experience, experience."

Small business owner and state Sen. Parley Hellewell, R- Orem, said he wouldn't "allow God to be pushed out of the public sector" and that he would cut taxes, "not just a little bit."

Educator Gary Benson called himself "the invisible candidate" — he was not listed on the program, and when he showed up organizers scrambled to set up a lectern for him, complete with hand-lettered sign. He stressed his experience in business, government and higher education, as well as one advantage over Matheson the other Republicans do not enjoy:

"I am cousins with Scott Matheson. When we were young I used to beat up on him all the time. I could beat him then, I can beat him now."

E-mail: aedwards@desnews.com