Republican leaders in the Legislature are leaning toward a property tax reduction as a way of reducing state revenues by $19 million - the amount of tax relief recommended by GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter.

Bangerter himself hasn't taken a stand on where the tax cut should come. He says he wants a full public debate on the issue before announcing his preference.Trouble is, in typical legislative fashion, there isn't a great deal of public debate. At least not yet.

The debate is taking place in closed-door Republican caucuses or in private GOP leadership meetings.

In the early stages of the Legislature that's understandable. The Republicans have to get their ducks in a row, and have to sound out the political pitfalls of various tax cuts.

Tax protest leaders like Merrill Cook and Greg Beesley want the sales tax removed from food. They threaten another initiative petition drive if lawmakers refuse.

Some Democratic and Republican legislators also want to have the sales tax removed from food.

But politically speaking, that probably won't happen.

First of all, many old-guard Republicans, especially Bangerter, don't want to do anything Cook wants.

Cook jumped from the Republican Party last spring and ran an independent campaign against Bangerter, drawing a number of conservative votes from the governor.

Even though Bangerter ultimately won re-election, many believe it would have been an easier race for the governor without Cook sniping at his right flank.

Second,the majority Republicans in the House and Senate don't want the tax protesters and Democrats setting the agenda for the most important issue of the session - tax relief.

Third, while no tax is liked, the sales tax is the most accepted tax, polls show. The property tax is the most hated tax. Thus, it makes sense to trim the most disliked tax and thus get the most favorable public reaction.

Some Republicans, especially in the Senate, want to restore more of the federal income tax deduction to Utah's state income tax returns.

Bangerter was even leaning that direction before the session started.

But that is a political hot potato. While the deduction for federal taxes paid helps everyone who pays federal and state income taxes, it clearly helps well-to-do Utahns more than low-income citizens.

Democrats love to call the deduction "the rich man's tax break."

Republicans are sensitive to that charge and may well stay away from increasing that deduction as a means of returning the $19 million.

The problem with cutting the state-mandated property tax for schools is that Bangerter has said he also wants to freeze property tax rates.

If the governor comes forward with that plan this session - and his top aides say he will - then local governments and schools get a double hit.

That may be too much for most legislators to swallow.

So the great tax debate will continue in the Legislature - sometimes in the open, sometimes behind closed doors.

Don't expect a decision until the final week of the session.