Chief Petitioner Behind Oregon Grocery Tax Ban 'Regrets' Involvement

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Nov. 2, 2018 9:02 p.m.

A chief petitioner behind a ballot measure to ban grocery taxes in Oregon now says he wishes he never backed the controversial proposal in the first place.

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In a message to Oregon Food Bank employees delivered Friday, Ron Brake said he'd hoped to "help those on small or fixed budgets," but that the corporate-backed campaign to pass Measure 103 has “twisted its meanings in directions that I could not have imagined.”

“I regret the extra work that I know fell on you, and I very much regret ever agreeing to be involved in 103,” Brake wrote. “Going forward, I will be staying completely out of politics.”

Brake’s message to Oregon Food Bank employees was his first since he was elected to chairman of the organization’s board on Wednesday. His term atop the organization begins in January. Brake, a former grocery store owner and current owner of a West Linn sales firm, is now vice chair of the food bank’s board.

Reached on Friday afternoon, Brake declined to discuss the email to food bank employees, calling it "private."

Asked about Brake's comments, the campaign behind Measure 103 sent along copies of two recent emails in which Brake indicated his support for the effort. The most recent, sent Monday, shows Brake responding to an e-mail by saying: "I hope we win!"

"Mr. Brake has been an outspoken supporter of Measure 103 and keeping Oregon groceries tax free," said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, in a statement. "We have been dismayed by the underhanded harassment many of our endorsers and supporters have faced throughout this election."

Brake's professed change of heart adds a wrinkle to what has already been a complex and expensive fight.

Measure 103 would amend the state constitution to bar taxes on the “sale or distribution” of food and nonalcoholic beverages. It’s being pushed with millions of dollars in donations from large grocery chains, and marketed as a way to ensure groceries in Oregon don’t become more expensive.


Opponents of the measure note that there isn't currently any proposal to tax groceries in Oregon. And they say the measure would create an unnecessary tax carve-out for big companies, and could lead to unintended consequences.

Related: Oregon Measure 103 Asks: Should Grocers Have Constitutional Protections?

Brake declined to talk about how he believed Measure 103 had been “twisted” or how it had added extra work for Oregon Food Bank employees.

The food bank’s executive director, Susannah Morgan, declined to discuss Brake’s message specifically, other than to confirm she sent it out to employees Friday.

Speaking generally, Morgan said Measure 103 had led to confusion because of language that suggested the measure would wall off food banks from taxes. Food banks, Morgan noted, don’t pay taxes anyway.

“Our response was, ‘Huh?’” she said. “We are not taxed now. We don’t charge for food. We don’t collect tax.”

The Oregon Food Bank has not taken a position on Measure 103.

Morgan mentioned an ad for Measure 103 that explicitly said the measure “ensures that food banks and food pantries will remain tax free.” The ad was called out by opponents, who noted that food banks operate as nonprofit organizations.

Related: Grocery Tax Opponents Try To Piggyback On Less Contentious Measure

The group Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon issued a statement that read in part: “The implication by Measure 103 proponents that food assistance could be taxed will create unnecessary confusion for Oregonians facing hard times, and may even deter people from seeking assistance.”

The confusion brought on by the campaign messaging meant Oregon Food Bank had to field increased media inquiries, Morgan said.

More recently, Measure 103 opponents have said the "yes" side attempted to mislead voters by sending out mailers linking the proposal to Measure 102, a housing-related measure that has no organized opposition.

Opponents aren't the only side of the ballot fight that have cried foul. Measure 103 backers sent cease-and-desist letters to opponents and at least one media organization this year, seeking to pressure them to stop discussing or reporting on potential unintended consequences of the measure.