Proponents of the initiative to take the sales tax off food promised a quieter campaign than two years ago, when they unsuccessfully attempted to win approval for three tax-slashing measures.

So far, they have kept their word.All the public has heard or seen from them during this campaign are a few radio commercials and fliers. Except for a possible newspaper advertisement and some debates before civic groups, that's been the extent of their exposure.

It's quite a contrast to the huge gatherings on the steps of the Capitol that launched the 1988 tax-initiatives drive, when tax protesters screamed, "No more taxes" at the politicians inside.

Since the tax-protest movement lost big at the polls in 1988, Independent Party Chairman Merrill Cook has attempted to distance himself and his new political party from the movement's often-harsh rhetoric.

"We've used a wise strategy," Cook said the weekend before Election Day. "The people were inoculated against tax-cutting two years ago. If we had tried a similar approach, we would have been doomed."

Looking at the polls, which have shown support for the initiative has continued to slip since Gov. Norm Bangerter opposed it, some would say the measure is doomed anyway.

Bangerter was the first and loudest opponent of the initiative, coming out against it just after an announcement last May that enough signatures had been gathered to put the issue before voters.

Republican leaders quickly endorsed the governor's plan to cut the state budget if the initiative passes. The cost to both state and local governments of removing the sales tax from food is estimated at $113 million.

Then, groups that would feel the effect of budget cuts joined the opposition. Leading the criticism of the initiative has been the Board of Regents and others in higher education.

Because of the state's tax structure, the higher education budget would probably have to take the biggest share of the cuts, an estimated $31 million annual reduction.

The regents formed the state's first political information committee to fight the initiative, and University of Utah students followed their example. The two organizations will spend more than $25,000 on advertising.

The Independent Party, which spent about $10,000 on the petition drive used to gather enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot, is spending about another $10,000 on advertising.

Cook said keeping the campaign low-key has resulted in his opposition limiting their expenditures. That, he said, may make it easier for the initiative to win undecided votes on Tuesday.

The initiative campaign has focused on state issues - spending the ever-growing tax surplus, eliminating tax breaks given to big businesses and cutting outwaste in government.

In the last days of the campaign, attention is shifting to Washington. A flier distributed statewide warns voters that with the recent tax hikes approved in Congress, the initiative may be their last chance for a tax cut.

It's the same strategy political challengers nationwide are using against incumbents, and Cook hopes voters will remember their frustrations with their representatives in Utah and Washington when they go to the polls.

That's not just to win votes for the initiative, although at this point it is the only chance the Independent Party appears to have of winning enough of the undecided voters.

This campaign is also the only opportunity many voters will have to support the Independent Party, which is running candidates in only a handful of local races.

Cook estimates that there are as many as 8,000 Utahns who consider themselves members of the Independent Party, though there were only 250 delegates to the party's first statewide convention.

The party was founded after the 1988 campaign by Cook, then a Republican who ran for governor as an independent candidate, and other conservative members of the GOP who were frustrated with the lack of interest in cutting taxes.

Now, the initiative to take the sales tax off food has won support from Democrats, Libertarians, the AFL-CIO, human-services organizations and other diverse groups.

While these groups all agree that the sales tax should be removed from food, they disagree on what should be done if the initiative passes. The Democrats, for example, want the wealthy to pay higher income taxes to make up for the loss in sales-tax revenues so programs won't have to be cut.

Despite their differences, Cook is proud of that coalition and sees it as essential to building the Independent Party into what he hopes will become the alternative to the GOP, which dominates Utah politics.

"We can be proud of what we accomplished," Cook said. "I don't think we can be losers no matter what happens. I'm just not going to accept a vote against the initiative as a defeat."

"If citizens vote yes to eliminate the sales tax on food, every citizen in Utah - man, woman or child - will get the equivalent of 31/2 weeks of free food each year. . . . Thirty-two states do not tax food, the most basic necessity. Utah shouldn't either!" - Independent Party leader Merrill Cook.

"All of you know my position. Like most of you, I dislike the tax on food. I personally believe the state can't afford the loss of revenue. But if the voters remove the food tax, I'll make the cuts." - Gov. Norm Bangerter.


(additional information)

Initiative A

"Shall a law be enacted to remove state and local sales taxes from food, except food prepared for immediate consuption and food sold through vending machines?"


Food-tax initiative

For 37%

Against 58%

Don't know 6%