Going into the 1991 legislative session, lawmakers faced a troubling property tax issue stemming from a court verdict last year known as the "AMAX case." The high-priority question was finally solved this week, but the result will not make Utahns very happy since it raises their taxes.

Yet lawmakers and most citizens knew there was no real choice but to boost tax rates. The only argument was over who would be affected and by how much.Under the circumstances, legislators did about as well as could be expected. The solution keeps tax increases small and widely spread, despite complaints from small business owners that too big a share of the burden falls on them.

Under the tax measure, the average homeowner will see county-assessed property and auto taxes rise about 1.2 percent. Businesses will experience a 3.1 percent hike in real and personal property taxes.

Large businesses that spread across county lines - and thus have their property taxes assessed by the state - will get tax reductions totaling about $12 million a year.

If that doesn't seem fair, hitting the small guy while cutting taxes of large companies, it was a balancing act required by the Utah Supreme Court last summer in a lawsuit filed by AMAX over the issue of fairness.

The mining company said that homeowners and businesses located in a single county had their property assessed with a 20 percent tax deduction from fair market value. Larger companies, such as mining firms, utilities and multi-county businesses, were assessed by the State Tax Commission at a full 100 percent of market value.

AMAX argued that such a practice not only wasn't fair but violated the State Constitution. The Supreme Court agreed and said AMAX - and by inference, all other state-assessed property - must be treated the same as county-assessed property and get the 20 percent tax break.

That meant the state must refund tens of thousands of dollars in contested tax payments and also faced a potential $56 million shortfall in tax revenues to local governments and the Uniform School Fund. This had to be fixed as quickly as possible and the Legislature has responded.

While no one disputes the need for general property tax hikes to correct the problem, there have been arguments for special taxes and fees against the big companies so they get less of a tax break.

Those proposals finally failed, but Utahns should remember that in the long run, corporations don't really pay taxes. Their customers actually foot the bill through the prices they pay for products or services. If taxes on a business rise, so do the prices charged to customers.

Small businesses, which generally have a narrow profit margin, limited financial resources and heavy competition, often have more trouble absorbing or passing along higher costs. They are getting hit with a bigger percentage increase and could have more trouble with the tax package.

If the tax bite proves too onerous, changes may have to be made. Making it hard for small firms to stay in business can be economically self-defeating.

However, all things considered, the Legislature seems to have reached a reasonable compromise on a thorny and politically sensitive problem.