Iraq isn't the only place where those in power try to use hostages to get what they want. Even now, state officials are threatening to cut social services if voters dare remove the sales tax on food in the November referendum.

Clearly, nothing is more odious to those who hold power than being told what to do by meddling amateurs whose only motivation is some hairbrained sense of social justice...or the fact that they are paying for it. A nuisance, voters and taxpayers. But there's more than one way to skirt a referendum.For instance, Utah voters have rejected automatic tax exemption for "non-profit" (but very prosperous) hospitals not once but twice. Yet these hospitals still aren't paying their taxes. The reasons why are instructive.

The battle to collect taxes from non-profit hospitals began in 1980 when the Legislature's Constitutional Revision Committee proposed an amendment to the Utah Constitution that would have added the word "hospital" to the "religious" and "charitable" categories already exempt.

The voters were convinced. Three new statutes and four tax code amendments - all advanced by the powerful hospital lobby - had to be nullified.

Then in 1985, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that non-profit hospitals had failed to demonstrate that their property was being used "exclusively for charitable purposes" as the Constitution required and, consequently, were not entitled to automatic exemption. The court specified a six-point test to determine eligibility.

The Legislature (egged on by an angry and affluent hospital lobby) responded by mounting another attempt to amend the Constitution.

The result was Proposition 1, voted on in November 1988. Once again, the voters were convinced. Non-profit hospitals would be required to prove their "charitableness."

But even before the first county Board of Equalization hearings could be held, the non-profit hospitals were complaining that the Supreme Court standards were "too vague."

This group substituted its own four-point standard and was granted exemptions in every county but Salt Lake, where some exemptions were denied.

The hospitals appealed the denials to the State Tax Commission and vice versa - the Salt Lake County assessor appealed all but one of the exemptions.

Despite a Supreme Court ruling, two public referendums and one round of review, nothing had been settled. Salt Lake non-profit hospitals still refused to pay their taxes, while the county assessor continued to believe that non-profit hospitals could actually be required to obey the law - no matter how much money, power and influence they had.

But before the Tax Commission could rule on either appeal, it was time for another round of hearings - which created a problem: With the election coming up, it was not a good time to be sticking one's political neck out. The 1988 June hearings were abruptly postponed until August. Then the August postponement was postponed.

In September 1988 the Utah State Tax Coommission (appointed, not elected) came to everyone's rescue and put all hearings everywhere on hold until it could draw up "uniform guidelines for standards."

The hospital industry applauded and promptly introduced its own four-point test for exemption. This proposal, sometimes known as the "net gift" approach, simply excuses a hospital from the tax rolls when its "total benefit to the community" meets or exceeds its "potential tax liability."

Of course, opinion varies widely as to what may and may not be counted as "benefiting" the community.

Salt Lake County countered with a "proportional" approach to exemption ( a proposal virtually ignored by the media), that grants 100 percent exemptions only to those who use 100 percent of their revenues for charity. Those who are only 10 percent charitable receive only 10 percent exemptions, which seems fair.

However, non-profits turned out to be no more willing to pay 80 percent of their taxes than 100 percent.

Caught between potentially resistive taxpayers and enormously rich hospitals, the State Tax Commission opted for prudence over valor and adopted the "net gift" approach - using standards so generous they virtually guarantee exemption for anyone possessing a 501(c-3) charter or a note from their mother.

As of now, the plan is to use these guidelines for adjudicating the appeals already before the Tax Commission...presumably in favor of the hospitals (hardly any other outcome can be imagined), thus enabling the rich and powerful to finally accomplish by administrative act what they couldn't get passed by public referendum - which works just as well.