State workers should be able to count on getting a pay increase from the next session of the Legislature, Gov. Norm Bangerter told employees of the state Department of Natural Resources.

But the governor warned the more than 100 employees gathered at the department headquarters on North Temple Tuesday that passing the initiative to take the sales tax off food could jeopardize those raises.The hourlong meeting was one of a series of sessions the governor is scheduling with state departments to talk directly to state employees and to answer their questions.

Bangerter said lawmakers will probably have a total of $200 million more to spend when the 1991 Legislature convenes in January than they did during their last session.

That's enough money to cover a cost-of-living increase for state employees and public school teachers as well as growth in demand for existing programs and new spending required by the federal government.

"Unless something goes haywire, that should occur," the governor said. The "something haywire" is the initiative, which Bangerter opposes. According to projections, it would cost the state $90 million in sales tax revenues.

"That's a real possibility, a $90 million loss," Bangerter said. He said although Utah's tax structure "probably could be a little more progressive," companies considering relocating in Utah already think rates are too high.

The governor also said state employees should expect to see a portion of any increase they get from the Legislature to go toward offsetting ever-increasing health-care costs.

The 1990 Legislature gave state employees and public school teachers a 6 percent increase in pay and benefits that began showing up in paychecks when the fiscal year began July 1.

The Utah Public Employees Association, which lobbies lawmakers on behalf of all state workers, plans to ask for an across-the-board 6 percent pay hike plus up to an additional 7 percent for merit.

UPEA officials say allowing increases of up to 13 percent for state workers will put them on par with public school teachers, who can earn more money by continuing their education.

Ben Everitt, chief geologist for the state Division of Water Resources, said after the meeting he thought the governor did a good job of fielding questions.

"A lot of state employees are concerned about their pay," Everitt said, adding that he was reassured to hear that Bangerter wanted to give them a pay hike.

"It sounds like it won't be much. But it's never much," Everitt said. "At least he's going to make an effort get something."