Should state officials levy taxes on some $6.5 million in federal reparation payments to Japanese Utahns interned at federal camps during World War II?

If you've never considered that question, you're not alone. Neither had Gov. Norm Bangerter or Independent gubernatorial candidate Merrill Cook, until the query was made in Salt Lake City Saturday during Utah's first Asian American Conference.Held at the Tri Arc hotel downtown, the event included comments from several Utah politicians, who explained their positions on a variety of issues that will affect the state's Asian community.

More than 100 participants listened intently as Democrats Brian Moss and Jim Davis, and Republican Richard Snelgrove expressed their support for the reparations payments. This summer, Congress passed a bill mandating $20,000 in tax-free federal funds for each Japanese American who suffered internment.

Each candidate expressed regret that the internment had occurred and labeled the payments as a mere token, considering the human suffering endured. Some 8,000 Japanese Americans, many of them Utahns, were held in one camp near Delta during the war. At present, about 325 Utahns are eligible for reparation payments.

Though supportive of the payments, Bangerter, Cook and Davis, who is Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Wilson's running mate, were all stumped when asked about whether they would levy a state tax on such payments.

"That's an issue I frankly haven't ever spoken with Ted about. I feel it was a moral recognition of a mistake, and it was little enough in compensation," said Davis, who stopped short of pledging not to tax the funds.

Cook asked the questioner if the state was planning to tax the money. He used the occasion to jab at Bangerter by answering himself: "What isn't taxed in the state of Utah?"

Bangerter said the question "has never crossed my mind - I haven't even thought about it." When told that two other states have decided against taxing the money, Bangerter was cordial but said he couldn't make such a commitment without consulting the state Tax Commission.

Cook and Davis sparred over several other issues, most notably the impact of the tax limitation initiatives, during their panel appearance with the congressional candidates. Davis claimed approval of the initiatives would necessitate cuts in vital services. Cook said a vitalized economy will follow tax cuts.

Snelgrove took jabs at Rep. Wayne Owens, R-Utah, who was also scheduled to appear, but sent an aide instead. The two of them traded heated barbs when the aide said Owens has staffed his office with several minority and aged representatives. Snelgrove, who pledged to use several minority staff members, shotgunned back, asking how many blacks and Asians are currently on Owens' staff. The aide said none are now, but insisted they have been in the past.

Moss had free fire in the exchange. His opponent, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was also scheduled to appear but sent an aide who made a short statement and left.

Bangerter stayed out of the fray by taking the stage after the other candidates finished.