Most Utahns are still opposed to removing the sales tax from food, the latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows, as groups for and against the measure are preparing the final days campaigns.
Utahns For Higher Education, the only formal group organized to oppose the tax removal, will file as a public interest committee (PIC) this coming week, says Dale Zabriskie, a Board of Regents member and co-chairman of the new group.Meanwhile, Merrill Cook and his Independent Party of Utah are planning a $10,000 radio campaign the week before the election. Cook said it is "sickening" that "colleges and universities are being politicized by the board (of regents); it is completely inappropriate and unfair."
Pollster Dan Jones & Associates found in a poll taken two weeks ago that if the election were held today, 55 percent would vote against removing the sales tax from food while 42 percent would vote in favor. Only 3 percent were undecided.
That is basically unchanged from a September poll that showed 54 percent opposed removing the food tax, 41 percent were in favor of its removal and 4 percent were undecided.
Cook and Independent Party members got the tax removal on the ballot by gathering more than 65,000 citizen signatures. The initiative is law-by-citizens. The Legislature in January could reimpose the tax or change the removal conditions.
Zabriskie, head of his own public relations firm, says it is completely responsible for the Board of Regents to form a PIC and enter the fray. "Normally, the Legislature would make such a tax decision. And the board would lobby the Legislature, as we do every year. It was Merrill Cook who decided to take this issue before the public, so it is appropriate that the board lobby the citizens as it would the Legislature. That's what we're doing."
Zabriskie and co-chairman Mike Leavitt, another regent, just sent letters to all members of college and university institutional councils asking for the moral and financial help. "We have a tentative, modest budget of $20,000, most of which will go for a last-week radio ad blitz. All the money will private sector contributions, we're not using any taxpayer money at all. We're asking each regent and council member to donate two meetings' per diem - a total of $150, to our cause. That raises $15,000 right there." But there are some very wealthy people on those bodies, and more money will likely be given.
In addition, Zabriskie said higher education students, usually a source that can be drawn upon, plan different functions at their schools to raise money and inform fellow students of the harm of cutting state revenues now.
"We're one of the few groups that are directly threatened," said Zabriskie. Sales tax goes into the state's general fund, which in turn is used for higher education and a variety of other state programs. Income tax, on the other hand, goes only into the Uniform School Fund, which funds grade schools, but not higher education. "We stand to lose $31 million. That's a worst-case scenario, but possible. That's $31 million out of $294 million in taxes that support the university system. We just can't afford that - it equates to forcing 9,700 students out of our system at a time when we're now seeing the bulge in public education students arriving at our doors."
Over the next 10 years, student enrollment will grow dramatically, says Zabriskie, reaching 20,000 more students at the turn of the century.
Cook said the regents' actions are horrible. "Gov. (Norm) Bangerter couldn't get his Republican Party to oppose us, so he's politicized the Board of Regents - his appointees - to do this." The governor appoints the board with the advice and consent of the Senate. A number of his close, personal advisors, like Leavitt and former Bangerter campaign manager Doug Foxley, do sit on the board. Foxley is board chairman. Zabriskie said the decision of setting up a PIC and opposing the tax removal was the board's alone.
Bangerter vehemently opposes removing the sales tax from food, saying the state can't afford to lose the estimated $90 million a year it brings in. However, the governor says he'll consider an income tax credit for lower-income Utahns as an offset to the food tax, something modest in the range of $12 million to $15 million, says his chief of staff, Bud Scruggs.
The state Republican Party is officially neutral on the food tax. The state Democratic Party formally endorses the tax removal, with the proviso that other taxes be raised if need be to make up lost revenue.
"That won't be needed," pledges Cook. "Even the governor admits there's a $100 million surplus. In our radio advertisements, we'll be talking surplus, surplus, surplus - a message that I don't think has gotten out yet."
If the election were held today, would you vote for or against removing the tax from food?
For removal Somewhat 15% Strongly 27%
Against removal Somewhat 16% Strongly 39%
Don't know 3%