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Ballot committee brouhaha breaks the late summer calm

Minor controversy erupts over appointment of panel to write provider tax ballot title.

CAPITAL BUREAU - A dust up over the committee writing a ballot title for the referral of the health care provider tax briefly broke the calm of late summer.While the air in downtown Salem may be a tad smoky these days, it's also been pleasantly clear of partisan bickering in the midst of the summer lull.

But then came a small brouhaha in the House of Representatives over appointments to a committee assigned to write the ballot title for the referral of House Bill 2391.

In true political fashion, it concerns a procedural issue that could end up significantly affecting voters and taxpayers.

The core of the controversy is who gets to write the ballot titles for a referral of HB 2391, the "provider tax" that sets out assorted revenues for the state's Medicaid program.

A trio of House Republicans are trying to refer parts of the legislation to the ballot. A legislative committee has the job of writing the ballot title.

Until this week, it wasn't clear exactly who would sit on that committee, but it was clear that there would be four Democrats and two Republicans, a split that was baked into separate legislation this session and that didn't exactly appeal to the Republicans.

Committee appointments are made by the Speaker of the House and the Senate President, and were announced Monday.

The House Republican caucus this week claimed the Democratic Speaker Tina Kotek, of Portland, failed to notify them of the committee appointments in good faith, the implication being that the appointments she made give referral opponents an unfair advantage.

Three senators and three state representatives have been appointed by the Legislature's presiding officers to write the ballot titles for the referendum, should the petitioners manage to gather enough signatures by Oct. 5.

Over the next couple of weeks, the committee will determine what voters see when they open their voters' pamphlets in January.

The appointees are State Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis; Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene; and Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner; and Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin; Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem; and Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland.

Rayfield has been outspoken in his criticism of the referendum. Nathanson and Devlin were the co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means committee in the 2017 session, and Burdick is the House Majority Leader.

As far as the Republican choices go, Winters was one of three Senate Republicans who voted for the provider tax. Smith, another member of the budget committee, has a middle-of-the-road reputation but did not vote for the provider tax package.

Before the 2017 session, House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said in a statement Monday, House Rules were changed to require that the Speaker consult with elected leadership of each caucus about committee appointments.

"I did not believe that change went far enough, but I expected the Speaker to honor the letter and spirit of the change adopted by the House," McLane said. "Her actions today violated that rule change because she failed to work with, let alone consult, the House Republican leadership on what member would serve on the Joint Interim Committee on Referendum 301."

Kotek issued a statement in response on Monday:

"Greg Smith is the most senior member of the Republican Caucus and an experienced and trusted voice when it comes to the state budget. we need legislators with budget expertise from both parties to serve on this important interim committee, and I stand behind the three appointments made today.

"While my staff did communicate with Rep. McLane's staff before finalizing these appointments, I regret that I did not reach Rep. McLane directly and look forward to working with both caucus leaders on future committee appointments."

But to finish off the ping pong contest, a spokesman for the House Republican Caucus shot back arguing that can "'FYI' text message" — apparently the form of notification given to the Republican caucus — is not consulting in "good faith."

The provider tax referral is shaping up to be a significant issue in the coming months and possibly heading into the 2018 short session.

Petitioners are busy gathering signatures about a month before their deadline. At the Oregon State Fair on Thursday, people were gathering signatures for the referral effort in at least two areas — both outside a ticketing area and at a booth for the Oregon GOP.

Three male signature-gatherers stood outside the ticketing area Thursday morning; one said he was a Republican and another said he was a registered Democrat. Both were lambasting the provider tax as a "sales tax on health care" to passersby.