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Ballot title approved for health care funding referendum

Neither side happy with committee's description for possible January ballot question.

CAPITAL BUREAU - A legislative committee Wednesday approved a ballot title and explanatory statement for a potential referendum on health care funding.SALEM — Although a legislative committee approved a ballot title and explanatory statement for a potential referendum on health care funding Wednesday, it's likely not the last battle in the continuing war of words over the issue.

A trio of Republican lawmakers hope to get sections of the state's health care funding legislation — which uses assorted revenues to help pay for the state's Medicaid program, called the Oregon Health Plan — on the ballot in a special election in January.

They say they are challenging assessments on hospitals, insurers and coordinated care organizations, the regional networks of providers serving patients on the Oregon Health Plan.

The petitioners include Republican State Reps. Julie Parrish, of Tualatin/West Linn; Cedric Hayden, of Roseburg; and Sal Esquivel, of Medford.

If they are successful in gathering nearly 59,000 signatures by Oct. 5, voters will have a chance to weigh in on Jan. 23. Parrish declined to say how many signatures the petitioners had gathered as of Wednesday, saying only that there were "lots."

But legal issues are percolating over the ballot title language and the text of the referendum petition itself. The ballot title is a statement summarizing the initiative and its impacts printed on the petition.

Legal challenges to the ballot title go directly to the Oregon Supreme Court.

Parrish said she plans to file a legal challenge to the ballot title and explanatory statement that the committee approved in a 5-to-1 vote Wednesday afternoon.

The petitioners also contest an Aug. 31 legal opinion in which legislative counsel found that a "no" vote would merely delay the implementation of, not do away with, a .7 percent assessment on certain hospitals.

"That's a separate litigation question outside of the ballot title," Parrish said.

At issue at the committee's meeting Wednesday, though, were the official descriptions that voters will see in January if the measure qualifies for the ballot.

Social services groups and unions have said the ballot title language that lawmakers approved doesn't go far enough in explaining the impacts of striking down the funding package, specifically how many low-income Oregonians would be effected.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who oversees the state's elections, in written testimony criticized the language of the draft caption, calling it "unreasonably long and confusing." He adding that the language describing the funding package should include the word "tax."

However, Johnson told lawmakers Wednesday that since the legislation refers to each funding mechanism as an "assessment," the use of that term, rather than "tax," in the ballot materials is appropriate.