A bad idea, badly written

Oregon is one of only 18 states that allow their constitutions to be amended by ballot initiative. In four of those states, the process is so restrictive that it is considered virtually impossible. Nevada requires voter approval in two separate elections, and three other states recently have added additional hurdles.

There is a good reason for this. Once something is added to a constitution, it is extremely difficult to fix problems or remedy unintended consequences. Legislative referral — the other way to amend Oregon’s Constitution — puts proposed changes through the legislative committee process, where they are fine-tuned before going to the voters.

Ballot Measure 103 is a classic example of the perils of amendment by initiative. On its face, it purports to exempt groceries from new taxes.

But wait, you say. Oregon has no sales tax, and isn’t likely to have one anytime soon. And even in states with sales taxes, groceries are generally exempted anyway.

Of course, the nonexistent sales tax is not what prompted this measure. It’s a reaction by the grocery industry and others to Ballot Measure 97, the 2016 measure that sought to tax large companies’ Oregon sales to raise $3 billion a year. The industry campaigned heavily against that effort and voters rejected it.

Now, the grocery industry wants to enact a permanent ban on any new taxes on groceries, including food and soda, and would freeze the state corporate minimum tax for supermarkets.

Bad enough that a single industry should get special tax protection enshrined in the state Constitution, but this measure’s language is so confusing that it’s difficult to know what else it might do. For instance, the state Department of Justice says Measure 103 would ban any new taxes on restaurant meals (Ashland’s existing meals tax would not be affected). The restaurant industry and the measure’s supporters insist new restaurant meals taxes still would be allowed.

What’s more, the measure bars any new tax on the “sale or distribution of groceries.” Opponents of Measure 103 say this could apply to fuel and weight-mile taxes paid by trucking companies that haul groceries, potentially affecting transportation funding to local governments as well as future gas tax increases contained in the state transportation package enacted by the Legislature last year.

The confusion over exactly what Measure 103 would and would not do is reason enough to keep it out of the state Constitution. We recommend a no vote.

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