The downward slide of the initiative to remove the sales tax from food continues, the latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows, with more Utahns now opposing the removal than supporting it.

Pollster Dan Jones & Associates found in a poll taken just two weeks ago that if the November election were today, 54 percent of Utahns would vote against the removal initiative, 41 percent would vote for it, with 4 percent undecided.In April, Jones found just the opposite - 68 percent in favor with 26 percent opposed to removing the sales tax from food. In June, Jones found it split, 48 percent in favor of removing the tax, 48 percent opposed.

Merrill Cook, chairman of the Independent Party of Utah and chief advocate for removing the tax, said he's not surprised by the latest poll. "We've been out talking to people and found they are scared, scared what will happen if the tax is removed. Our job over the next several weeks is to unscare them, and we do that by talking surplus, surplus, surplus."

Cook maintains that removing the tax won't cost local and state governments as much as Gov. Norm Bangerter and other opponents say. And Cook argues that the cost can be absorbed through state surplus revenues and "cutting fat from state and local programs."

Bangerter says there will be about a $50 million surplus for the year that ended June 30. In addition, there is a $50-million rainy-day fund left over from past years' surpluses. If the economy stays strong, the $50-million surplus of the past fiscal year will repeat.

But, he argues, removing the food taxwill cost the state $90 million, local governments $23 million, and there is real need in public education and other programs for the extra money - that even with the surpluses the state isn't rich and certainly not wasteful.

Bangerter, public and higher education officials and a slew of other organizations and groups add that Cook is dead wrong in his estimates, and that vital state and local programs will be cut if citizens remove the tax.

As part of his latest poll, Jones also asked other questions concerning the food tax removal. He found that, should the tax be removed, almost half of all Utahns - 42 percent - want the lost revenue made up by spending state surpluses and trimming programs if need be.

"That's great," said Cook, "because that's exactly what we advocate: spend the surpluses and trim where possible."

Fourteen percent told Jones just programs should be cut if the tax removal passes, 27 percent said the surplus should be spent and then other taxes raised to offset any loss (the Democratic Party's official stand) and 18 percent don't know how to solve the revenue shortfall problem.

Democratic State Chairman Peter Billings Jr. has suggested a compromise to Bangerter - instead of removing the food tax, give an income tax credit to only low- and middle-income Utahns roughly equivalent to what they pay in food tax. Jones found that when that option was included in the mix, 23 percent favor removing the food tax, 33 percent want an income tax credit, 37 percent don't want taxes changed at all and 6 percent didn't know.

Finally, Billings has said if Bangerter will call a special legislative session before the November election, and the income tax credit is given, Democrats will end their support of Cook's initiative. But Jones found 51 percent of Utahns don't want a special session to consider any income tax credit for food tax paid.



If the election were held today, would you vote for or against removing the sales tax from food?

Definitely for removal 27%

Probably for removal 14%

Probably against removal 17%

Definitely against removal 11%

Don't know 4%

An income tax credit awarded to low-to-middle-income Utahns has been proposed as an alternative to removing the food sales tax. Which do you prefer?

Remove sales tax from food 23%

Income tax credit 33%

No change in tax structure at all 37%

Don't know 6%

Sample size: 900; margin of error plus or minus 3.2%