Got your ballot yet? Good. Still making your way through the statewide ballot measures? That's understandable; these require a bit of thought on your part. Sorry about that.
As you're pondering Measure 103 — that's the measure that would amend the Oregon Constitution to block the state or local governments from adopting any sort of tax or fee on the sale or distribution of groceries — here are thoughts to keep in mind.
We've talked about a couple of them in previous editorials — specifically, whether it's a good idea to enshrine in the state constitution a measure that seems to offer a benefit primarily to one particular interest or business, as Measure 103 would do. (This is part of the reason why we've argued that voters would be wise to reject this particular ballot measure; also, it seems to us that a constitutional amendment must, by its nature, reach a higher standard of proof than a statutory change, and we don't think this measure has cleared that bar.)
But there's something else to think about as you consider Measure 103, and that comes into focus when you follow the money, and take a look at who's supporting the measure with campaign contributions and who's writing checks to fund the opposition effort. That's when you realize that Measure 103, on some level, isn't just about groceries.
To some extent, the measure is about soda pop. And, specifically, whether state or local governments will be able to tax the sale of soda pop.
A fascinating article over the weekend in The Oregonian reported that the biggest financial supporter for Measure 103 was the American Beverage Association, which has contributed some $1.7 million to date. About half of the contributions against the measure have come from a political action committee called the Action Now Initiative, which supports soda taxes and has contributed about $500,000 thus far. (And, of course, with two weeks to go until Election Day, these totals are likely to grow.)
Soda taxes have been enacted in just a handful of communities across the nation. The basic argument for them is that sweetened beverages like soda pop play a huge role in contributing to the nation's obesity epidemic — and obesity, sooner or later, results in big costs in terms of health problems and medical bills.
No one in Oregon appears to be talking right now about enacting a soda tax — although a group in Multnomah County (of course) last year indefinitely shelved its plans to push for one. (For the record, we think the idea of a soda tax isn't a particularly good one, but we'll leave it at that for now.)
But grocers continue to worry about the possibility of a soda tax, and there's a reason why: In a business with notoriously low profit margins, soda is a reliable money-maker. And studies have suggested that soda taxes can hammer grocery store revenue. Here's why: Customers simply start to frequent stores in locales that don't impose a soda tax — and then buy all their groceries, not just pop, in those stores.
So you can see why grocers find the idea of a pre-emptive strike on potential soda taxes appealing: In some ways, it's easier to rewrite the constitution once and take the idea off the table than it is to fight numerous local battles over soda taxes wherever they might arise.
The problem with that, of course, is the same problem that we identified in our earlier editorial about 103: It's a bad idea to write into the state constitution a measure that exempts from taxes one particular business. What business sector will line up next for constitutional protection? It helps to understand the background behind Measure 103, but the best option for voters still is to simply vote "No." (mm)