Merrill Cook and the Utah Coalition for Tax Limitation want the Utah Legislature and Gov. Norm Bangerter to remove the sales tax from food during the upcoming legislative session.

If they don't, coalition leaders say they'll start another initiative petition drive to get the question before voters in 1990. Cook says he may start a third political party to achieve tax reduction and/or limitation.Get ready for another petition drive. Get ready for a new political party.

There's no way, I believe, that lawmakers will remove all the sales tax from food unless updated revenue estimates for 1989-90, due in mid-February, show a lot more growth than now.

No one knows for sure how much sales tax food products bring into the state. Estimates range from between $60 million to $100 million.

Either number is way more than Bangerter wants in tax relief next year. The governor proposes $19 million in cuts of as-yet unnamed taxes. Bangerter isn't opposed to reducing the sales tax on food by $19 million, but he says there isn't $60 million or $100 million in excess monies to buy the complete removal of the tax.

Accordingly, Bangerter said recently that he'll oppose wholesale removal of the food tax. That would cause too much harm to state programs, he said.

So expect a dissatisfied Cook and coalition leaders come the end of the session Feb. 22. But there is something else at work here, also.

Many leading Republican lawmakers don't want whatever tax cut comes going to the food tax. They want the $19 million - or more if revenues get better - to go toward the income tax.

Two years ago, in a compromise with Democratic lawmakers, Republicans raised the sales tax and removed the deduction on state income tax returns for federal income tax paid. Removing that deduction hit moderate-to-high income Utahns hard.

Some wealthy members of the state Senate complained privately that their state income taxes went up five times.

Influential, well-to-do Republicans throughout the state let their GOP lawmakers know they didn't like their income taxes raised so drastically.

Bangerter felt the political heat during his re-election. Part of his rebating $77 million to taxpayers this summer was to restore a third of that federal deduction.

While saying he still has no personal preference about where the $19 million in tax relief should come next year, the governor often talks favorably about restoring more of that federal deduction. The $19 million would increase the federal deduction to one half of federal taxes paid.

It's a touchy political problem, however.

For giving more of that tax deduction back clearly helps upper-income Utahns more than lower-income Utahns. Such an act would give Democrats the perfect example of their classic political battle cry: Republicans take care of the fat cats, Democrats worry about poor and middle-income Americans.

Republicans will be put in the position of saying they don't want to reduce the sales tax on food, which hits poor Utahns hard, while advocating restoring a tax break for the well-to-do.

That's a tough political stand to sell.

Bangerter, who learned the hard way not to take firm stands on hot tax issues, will sit back the first month or so of the Legislature and watch the debate.

House Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, says the Democrats want their opinions felt in only a couple of battles this year. "And taxes and tax cuts is one of them," he said.

Democratic Party Chairman Randy Horiuchi - who considered early political retirement this fall - says one reason he's sticking around for the session is to nip at the Republicans.

So the tax-cut fight may be lively. In an otherwise dull-looking session, it will be welcomed, also.