On a day when taxpayers across the country were scrambling to get their income tax returns done, a handful of people turned out for the kickoff of a petition drive to remove the sales tax from food.

About 50 people turned out in front of the municipal building in downtown Ogden Saturday waving signs that read "cut food tax," while transients looked on scratching their heads.The initiative to eliminate sales tax on food is being spearheaded by the Utah Tax Limitation Coalition.

Independent candidate Merrill Cook, who lost his bid for governor last year, spoke at the rally, saying Utah has the highest tax on food in the nation.

He said the coalition hopes to get 32,000 signatures on the petitions by Nov. 1 in order to force the state Legislature to vote on the measure next year. He said 65,000 signatures by Nov. 1 would put the initiative on the 1990 general election ballet.

Saturday's sparse crowd was a far cry from the scene 1987, when thousands of Utahns gathered on the steps of the State Capitol to protest tax increases and show their support for three tax-cutting initiatives. The coalition was responsible for gathering enough petition signatures to get those initiatives on the 1988 general election ballot, but the three measures were defeated in every county, making their strongest showing in Weber County.

"I want to continue to fight," Cook said, "to make this tax cut a reality."

He said the bipartisan movement has had both support from the Republican and Democratic parties, but when leaders speak out in favor of the measure, they get in trouble with other leaders.

"State Democratic Party Chairman Randy Horiuchi told us he supported us," Cook said. "But Randy has been called on the carpet, according to the Deseret News, so he's had to distance himself from us."

Coalition Chairman Greg Beesley said that if the Legislature can afford to consider giving tax breaks to special interest groups like the ski industry, and give the University of Utah $5 million for fusion research, then it can afford to cut sales tax on food.

Beesley called the Legislature a "steamroller out of control" and said the taxpayers would have to get involved with the initiative to keep lawmakers in line.

"We live here in a free society," Beesley said. "And we all have to take responsibility."

Danny Blaylock, Weber County chairman of the coalition, said Utah is losing people because of high taxes.

"We want growth in our state," Blaylock said. "We want people moving in instead of moving out."

He said the coalition is not a tax protest group or a self-serving organization. He said members just want to make government responsible to the people in a movement that has swept through the entire state.

"We are serving our community," he pointed out. "It's a wholesome activity to be involved in."