Three national food retailers are putting big money into an initiative that would bar new taxes on the sales of groceries.
"The idea of keeping your groceries tax-free is pretty universal," said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association. "That's why we're going ahead with this."
Gilliam said his group on Thursday cleared the last barrier to launching their effort to collect the 117,578 signatures it needs to qualify the proposed constitutional amendment for the November ballot. He said the Oregon Supreme Court upheld a ballot title written by the state attorney general's office.
Three retailers — Albertsons, Costco and Kroger — put a total of $1.2 million into the initiative this month, disclosure reports show. The grocery association also lent the campaign $97,000. Kroger is the parent company of Fred Meyer. Albertsons merged with Safeway in 2015.
If successful, the initiative could have several political impacts. For starters, it would halt any effort to impose taxes on sugary sodas, as public health groups have been trying to do around the country. An effort to enact a soda tax in Multnomah County has been repeatedly put off as backers struggled to gain traction.
In addition, the grocers' initiative could also affect repeated efforts to establish a gross receipts tax in Oregon that would tax companies on the amount of their sales.
Voters strongly rejected a gross receipts measure on the 2016 ballot, but legislators have expressed interest in a more modest measure.
"This is really an attempt by the grocers to codify their ability not to pay their fair share of taxes," said Katherine Driessen, communications director at Our Oregon. The labor-backed group helped run the failed gross receipts initiative, Measure 97, in 2016.
Gilliam argued that grocers operate on a narrow margin and can't absorb gross receipts taxes without hiking prices. But he did say that legislators could still raise corporate income taxes on grocers if they wanted. The measure would also not prohibit taxes on restaurant meals.
Gilliam defended heading off soda taxes before they get started in Oregon, saying, "we're not going to make choices about what people eat."