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Oregon Grocery Initiative May Sink Multnomah County Soda Tax

<p>A customer walks into a Safeway store in Portland. An Oregon initiative to ban taxes on the sale of food is primarily aimed at countering attempts to raise corporate taxes.</p>

Rick Bowmer


A customer walks into a Safeway store in Portland. An Oregon initiative to ban taxes on the sale of food is primarily aimed at countering attempts to raise corporate taxes.

A proposed tax on sugary sodas in Multnomah County could fall victim to a statewide ballot measure sponsored by the Oregon grocery industry.

The industry is pushing forward with an initiative that would ban taxes on the sale of food in Oregon. The proposed statewide constitutional amendment is primarily aimed at countering attempts to hike corporate taxes in the state.

But the grocery initiative would also cover new taxes on sugar-laden sodas, which many health researchers blame for growing problems with obesity and diabetes.

"This grocers' initiative would just eliminate our ability to make those decisions locally," said Terri Steenbergen, manager of the Healthy Kids & Education Initiative.

Her group may seek to put a measure on the May ballot that would impose a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on the sugary beverages.

Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, said his group has no problem with knocking out new attempts to tax soda.

"They come from a perspective that everybody is abusing soft drinks and we think people can make their own decisions about their own consumption," Gilliam said, adding, "Our goal and our policy is to protect our paying customer from whatever choices they make at a grocery store."

The grocery initiative was filed earlier this month and needs 117,578 signatures to qualify for the November 2018 ballot. It specifically calls for a ban on taxes based on sales of "food or beverage intended for human consumption," with the exception of tobacco, alcohol or marijuana.

Gilliam said those latter three products are excluded because his association did not want to eliminate existing taxes on them. But he said it was too complicated for an initiative to define what kinds of foods should face additional taxes.

to promote the initiative says food should not be taxed because it is a necessity.

The two chief sponsors, Ron Brake and Syd Hannigan are both board members of the Oregon Food Bank and described on the website as "long-time activists fighting systemic hunger in Oregon."

Steenbergen argued the soda tax measure is needed to combat a rising problem. She said that 40 percent of children are now at risk of developing diabetes during their lifetime.

"We know are bad for the health of our children," said Steenbergen, adding that the measure would both help discourage consumption while raising money for health programs and for early childhood education.

Gilliam said the grocery industry still hasn't made a final decision on taking its initiative to the ballot. He said he hoped the proposed initiative would spur the governor and lawmakers to reach agreement on a stable financing plan for the state that does not include a tax on corporate sales.

A coalition led by the public employee unions placed Measure 97 on last year's ballot. It would have raised $3 billion a year in gross receipt taxes based on sales in Oregon by the state's largest corporations.

Voters widely rejected Measure 97 after the most expensive ballot measure campaign in Oregon's history.

This year, there were several attempts to pass a smaller gross receipts tax at the Legislature and the unions could return with another measure on the 2018 ballot.

Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.