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Oregon’s Ballot Measure on Grocery Taxes, Explained

Measure 103 would ban potential taxes on “any raw or processed food or beverage intended for human consumption” — that includes restaurant meals and soda

Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

Election Day is November 6, and this year’s measures encompass some incredibly weighty issues, but one of the most vague and perplexing is Measure 103, the proposed grocery tax ban.

Unlike Idaho and Hawaii, Oregon doesn’t have a tax on groceries or meals at restaurants, and there are no current proposals to do so. Still, there have been city-based proposals to impose a retail tax; Salem’s Statesman Journal notes that Ontario recently proposed a 1 percent retail sales tax that failed earlier this year. An OPB story draws ties between the Measure 103 fight and 2016’s failed Measure 97, which would tax gross sales that exceed $25 million. Measure 103, then, would essentially amend the Oregon state Constitution to prohibit taxes on groceries statewide from here on out. Campaigns against 97 and 103 elicited millions in donations from grocery chains, which would’ve been affected the most.

Here’s the problem: According to critics, the language of the measure is too vague and broad, which could cause some issues determining what we can and can’t tax going forward. With a plague of misinformation circulating from both the yes and no campaigns on social media and TV ads, figuring out what Measure 103 is and what it is not is tricky. Here’s what to know about Measure 103 — and what to disregard.

What’s the gist of the bill?

Measure 103 bans any future taxes on grocers or those buying groceries — and, potentially, a lot more than that. According to the language of the measure, the definition of “groceries” is much broader than the standard dictionary definition. The measure defines groceries as “any raw or processed food or beverage intended for human consumption except alcoholic beverages, marijuana products, and tobacco products.” By that definition, groceries could include any food sold at a business — that means restaurants, too. The two sides have argued about which types of restaurants will be impacted by Measure 103, but according to Street Roots, Oregon’s Supreme Court and Office of the Attorney General confirmed the measure applies to restaurant meals.

Another high-interest topic within Measure 103 is what it would mean for potential soda taxes. Local and national health organizations dabbled with a soda tax campaign in Multnomah County last year, but eventually decided to postpone for better voter turnout. Measure 103 would block soda taxes, which is likely a big part of the reason the American Beverage Association keeps pumping cash into the yes campaign, while the American Cancer Society pushes for the other side. Also, much of the conversation about the measure is centered around soda because that’s where there’s potential for huge tax dollars. For example, if a county decides it wants to fund its school repairs, or public hospitals, or affordable housing with a soda tax, all of those taxes would be deemed unconstitutional in Oregon under 103.

What does each side get wrong?

The two sides have been at each others’ throats about specific claims made by the other. A yes campaign ad says “[Measure] 103 ensures food banks and food pantries will remain tax free.” This isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s definitely misleading: As non-profits, food banks and pantries should not be affected by a sales tax, because those products are donated and available for free. Organizations like Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon have openly asked the yes campaign to retract the ad, worried that “people needing assistance would not understand that food at pantries is free and will continue to be,” in the words of Willamette Week.

Earlier in the campaign, the legal team representing the yes campaign filed a cease-and-desist against no supporters, claiming they were spreading false information about potential impacts on fuel taxes and Medicaid taxes. The language is very specific about food and beverage; things outside of those categories, like fuel, would not be subject to taxes. However, a response letter from lawyers representing coalition members denied that they claimed 103 would impact those taxes or causes, excluding a choice few.

So what does my vote actually mean?

Ironically enough, thinking about Measure 103 as a grocery tax ban is seeing it as both smaller and larger than it is. Because the language is limited as food and beverage, that wouldn’t include the other supplies you get at the grocery store — toilet paper, toothpaste, laundry detergent. However, it may impact more than grocery taxes: A yes vote also protects restaurant meals, and potential tax hikes on the larger corporations that own your neighborhood grocery store.

A yes vote is a way of saying, “No, I don’t want my grocery store or favorite restaurant taxed, ever, and I don’t want to see any rise in cost on my groceries either in the form of sales tax or a passed-along increase in consumer cost for goods.” That will extend throughout the state, and it will impact potential taxes down the road, regardless of what the tax would fund.

A no vote does not approve any sort of grocery tax, sales tax, or soda tax. It just means that cities, counties, and the state could, in the future, institute a tax on restaurants or grocery stores. It also frees up the possibility of increasing corporate taxes like Measure 97, if we ever go down that road again.

Measure 103: YES! KEEP OUR GROCERIES TAX FREE [Official]
Oregon Measure 103 Asks: Should Grocers Have Constitutional Protections? [OPB]
Oregon Measure 103 would make future grocery taxes unconstitutional [Statesman Journal]
Opponents of Measure 103 Rebuff Threats of Legal Action Against Their Supporters [Willamette Week]
Breaking down Measure 103: Fact vs. fiction [Street Roots]
Multnomah County soda tax campaign postpones target date after spending $800K [The O]

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