Gov. Norm Bangerter appears to be softening in his opposition to three tax-limitation initiatives, according to independent gubernatorial can- didate Merrill Cook.

In an unusually hard-hitting opening debate statement Monday, Cook said Bangerter's own tax-limitation plan, announced last week, came soon after the governor appeared on a local radio program with tax-initiative advocate Mills Crenshaw."I'm wondering if the governor isn't starting to agree with the tax-limitation initiatives," Cook said.

But Bangerter, reiterating his strong opposition to the initiatives, said his plan includes concepts he has supported for years. The plan, among other things, would freeze property taxes and require a vote of the public to raise them.

"I think it's time we did freeze them," he said, referring to property taxes. "Norm Bangerter has always suggested that."

Taxes and the state's economy dominated the discussion as Cook, Bangerter and Democrat Ted Wilson debated in front of members of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.

Wilson said Bangerter's tax plan is "panic politics.

"It's a little late, a little political," he said.

He also criticized Cook for not being specific about where he would cut state government if voters approved the initiatives.

Bangerter, defending his four-year record, said 50,000 jobs have been added to Utah's economy during that time. The increase came despite problems in the oil and mining industries.

"Today we have a major economic development plan," he said, noting he is trying to set up a venture-capital pool to help struggling new businesses.

Bangerter also said he has helped Utah businesses expand, prompting Wilson to say, "The governor must have been living in another state the past four years."

Wilson said Bangerter called the Legislature into a special session last summer to pass laws designed to attract PEPCON, a Nevada rocket-fuel manufacturer, to Utah.

"Would he call a special session when you want to expand your business?" Wilson said.

Wilson said he would extend tax credits to local businesses that hire more employees and provide more vocational training for local workers.

Cook said he would help local businesses by making tax rates more fair.

"A better paycheck is our No. 1 priority," Cook said.