Sales tax on liquor coming to Oregon?

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Oregonians may get a chance to vote on a sales tax in November, but only on liquor. Those words — dreaded in some political circles — appear on the most recent ballot title for the initiative measure aimed at privatizing liquor sales in Oregon.

Unsurprisingly, supporters of the measure are not happy.

"That's a concern we would raise in challenging the ballot title," said Pat McCormick, spokesman for Oregonians for Competition, the group behind the liquor sales initiative.

The ballot title is the first impression many voters get of a measure. Here's how it reads now, as certified by the state attorney general's office: "Allows qualified retail stores to sell liquor; current price markup replaced by wholesale sales tax."

In papers filed with the state Elections Division, the attorney general's office says that's the most accurate distillation of an extremely complex bill that would make big changes to state tax policy.Privatization supporters, consisting mainly of grocery store chains that want to sell liquor, wanted to avoid the words "sales tax" and instead use "fees."

Opponents said the title should refer to taxes, because the initiative would place a 71.7 percent tax on liquor to replace the state's "mark-up" that produces revenue for the general fund and for cities and counties.

Oregon voters have been asked nine times over the years to approve a general sales tax and have rejected the idea each time.Having the words "sales tax" in the ballot title could hurt its chances, said Portland pollster Mike Riley. But a bigger issue could be what happens to the price of booze under the measure. When Washington voters approved a privatization measure backed by grocers, prices went up.

"A fair amount of people felt burned by the Washington measure," Riley said, "so that could be a bigger issue."