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Petitioners gather signatures to get initiative on ballot for St. Helens and state level

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Susan Mays, a paid signature-gatherer, was collecting signatures oustide of St. Helens Market Fresh on Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 24. Petitioners are aiming to get 1,500 verfied signatures on the initiative before filing it with the Columbia County Elections Office.Petitioners supporting two initiatives focused on grocery tax bans have continued collecting signatures in St. Helens in the wake of a recent failed city initiative to implement a tax on sugary drinks.

Tim Mooney, a consultant to the Northwest Grocery Association, said paid independent contractors and volunteers have collected signatures in St. Helens since mid-October to advance two grocery tax ban initiatives, one specific to St. Helens and the other statewide, that would prohibit taxes on consumable groceries.

Petitioners need to gather a total 1,366 signatures by February for the St. Helens initiative to qualify for the May 2018 ballot. Only 1,000 signatures are needed for the state initiative.

No taxes on groceries are currently being proposed, Mooney said, but the effort is more preventative in nature.

"Oregon has never had a tax on groceries," Mooney said, "And we want to petition to say once and for all that we're not going to tax groceries."

The St. Helens initiative, titled "Yes! Keep St. Helens Groceries Tax Free," proposes to add a section to the city charter that would prohibit the imposition or addition of taxes or fees on groceries for licensed grocers, farm stand operators or food banks.

The local initiative is a play on the statewide initiative titled "Yes! Keep Our Groceries Tax Free," which is backed by the NGA.

Approximately a dozen volunteers and paid contractors have been collecting signatures outside of St. Helens Market Fresh and Rite Aid this month. Mooney added that some door-to-door signature-gathering has also occurred in the city.

Susan Mays, a paid signature-gatherer, was collecting signatures Tuesday afternoon at St. Helens Market Fresh. She said she hasn't encountered anyone opposed to the initiatives so far. The biggest challenge, she said, is getting St. Helens residents who live within city limits to sign.

Josh Poling, the store manager St. Helens Market Fresh, was one of the main pro-

ponents of the initiative, along with Doug Stokes, owner of the St. Helens Liquor Store.

"Groceries are a basic necessity and it's something that shouldn't be taxed at all," Poling said.

The South Columbia County Chamber of Commerce voted Tuesday afternoon to support both the city and state initiatives as well.

Mooney said the push to collect signatures is in reaction to the highly contested proposed sugar-sweetened beverage excise tax considered by the St. Helens City Council earlier this month. The council voted down the proposal after numerous residents spoke out against it at a public forum.

Poling, among others, was outspoken about his opposition to the proposal. His concern going forward is that excise taxes don't have to be referred to voters directly.

"Those things that don't have to be voted on, those are the things we're worried about," Poling said.

Filing a petition to change the city charter is one way to get their message across.

"That was a way to say now, and forever, we think it's a bad idea to tax groceries," Mooney said.

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