Despite the resounding defeat of the tax limitation initiatives in Utah on Tuesday, their supporters can still claim something of a victory.
By almost defeating Gov. Norman Bangerter, tax protesters sent the state's top elected officials a pointed message to go slow on future tax increases.Moreover, despite the outcome of the balloting, it would be a mistake to expect demands for tax limitation to go away until Utah's business climate improves enough to relieve the economic and social pressures that gave rise to this highly controversial issue.
Even so, their chief supporters' threats to keep pushing for formal tax limitation plans is hard to explain except as an act of self-justification and political bravado.
If a majority of Utahns can't be persuaded to approve tax limitation initiatives in the aftermath of the biggest tax increase in the state's history, it's hard to imagine when they could be persuaded to do so.
Likewise, it's hard to imagine the public's feeling kindly about being dragged back to the polls in the future to vote again on basically the same kind of tax limitation plans that have now been considered and rejected three different times. That goes particularly if Utahns can expect to be treated in any future tax limitation campaign to the same kind of personal insults to which many were subjected in the recent fight just because they happened to oppose the initiatives.
Moreover, despite the message sent by Gov. Bangerter's narrow escape at the polls, its impact is limited because he was the only top official to even come close to being punished for Utah's big tax hike. His party retained control of both houses of the Legislature.
Bangerter himself did not escape entirely unscathed. He becomes only the second Utah governor ever elected with less than a majority vote, making it hard for him to claim a mandate. The same thing happened in 1956 when George Clyde won after a party-splitting campaign by former GOP Gov. J. Bracken Lee running as an independent.
In the 1988 campaign, independent gubernatorial candidate Merrill Cook - carrying the tax limitation banner - finished a weak third, far behind both Bangerter and challenger Ted Wilson. This showing leaves Cook with a reputation simply as a spoiler. That reputation, together with his previous unsuccessful attempts to win elective office, provides a weak base from which to mount future attempts at a political career.
Despite his lack of a majority, Gov. Bangerter can take considerable satisfaction in his accomplishment. His re-election came only after he had trailed Wilson in the polls by substantial margins for nearly a year. And it involved his recapturing the votes of some of his fellow Republicans who had embraced the tax limitation initiatives.
Meanwhile, two amendments to the state constitution passed easily, showing Utah voters' ability to make careful distinctions between the proposals on the ballot.
After the governor's race, the closest Utah campaign was for Attorney General, where incumbent Republican David Wilkinson lost a cliff-hanger to former Democratic Salt Lake County Attorney Paul Van Dam. The other major contests went almost entirely as expected, with incumbents from U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and U.S. Reps. Wayne Owens, Jim Hansen, and Howard Nielson to incumbent Salt Lake County Commissioner Mike Stewart beating off their challengers.
One final point: Utahns probably can thank the fight over the tax limitation initiatives for bringing to the polls far more voters than likely would have turned out without these highly controversial items on the ballot.
Even so, a high price was paid for the big turnout. The 1988 campaign inflicted more wounds on this state than any election contest in many years. Now that the battle is over, Utah has plenty of healing to do.