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Provider tax fight raises questions of 'pay to play'

Critics of health care provider tax cite conflicts of interest in committee writing potential ballot title.

More questions were raised this week about a legislative committee appointed to write a ballot title for a possible special election next year on state healthcare taxes.

If petitioners are successful in gathering the required 58,789 signatures by Oct. 5, voters will be asked Jan. 23 to approve or overturn parts of a health care funding package, colloquially referred to in the Capitol as the "provider tax."

The legislation specified assorted revenues, including assessments and taxes on insurance premiums, hospitals and coordinated care organizations, to pay for the state's Medicaid program.

The committee, named Aug. 28, has already been a target of scrutiny since, in separate legislation, it was designed to include four Democrats and two Republicans.

On Wednesday, Willamette Week reported that four members of the committee — two of the Democrats and the two Republicans — received, altogether, $16,500 in campaign donations from Medicaid-funded groups in late July. According to the alt weekly's reporting, all maintained they would not make decisions based on those donations.

Then, in a letter to the ballot title committee last week, petitioners State Rep. Julie Parrish, R-Tualatin/West Linn and Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, called out a group of state Senators, including members of the ballot committee, for scheduling a private meeting with a group of "stakeholders" — that ubiquitous Oregon term for anybody who has an interest in legislation.

Although the meeting has since been canceled, it was at first scheduled for the week in between the two public hearings on the ballot title (Sept. 5 and Sept. 20). The meeting was initially scheduled for Sept. 12 at the headquarters of the Oregon Medical Association in Southwest Portland.

According to a copy of the email attached to Hayden and Parrish's letter, which was submitted into the public record for the Sept. 5 public hearing at the state capitol, "the purpose of the discussion is to get an update on the potential referendum and to talk about the implications should it appear on the ballot in January 2018."

Invitees included people from OHSU, unions, insurers, coordinated care organizations and advocacy and lobbying groups.

"Included on this invitation are organizations that due to the rules of their non-profits or government organizations, are precluded from taking a position on this ballot referendum," Parrish and Hayden wrote. "Yet during this process, these organizations, along with most every major for-profit health care entity or lobbyist, will be given exclusive access to two Referendum 301 committee members in what can only be described as a backroom meeting to give input that will not otherwise be heard or known by the general public, nor recorded into the permanent legislative record."

Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, said after Tuesday morning's public hearing that the "roundtable discussion," as it was billed in the email, would be delayed until after Oct. 5, the deadline for Parrish and her fellow petitioners to gather signatures to refer components of the legislation to the ballot, since it will not be known until then whether the issue will get to voters' mailboxes.

The senator said that there hadn't been any "real meeting" of people who would be impacted by the referral, should voters reject the parts of the funding package that the petitioners are asking them to, and that he was asked by people in the healthcare field to convene such a meeting.

The invitation was issued from Sen. Devlin's private email address, not a legislative email address.

The two other senators extending the invitation, according to the email, were Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem (a member of the ballot title committee) and Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose.

Devlin, a co-chair of the state's budget-writing committee this session, was appointed to co-chair the ballot title committee in his role as a legislator.

However, he said he used a private email to send out the invitation because the issue could involve a future campaign.

Parrish, who has a campaign consulting business, has in turn been accused by Democrats of standing to profit personally from the referral — a charge she denies — because she does political consulting.

Another complication: Parrish's "data and online media company," PIP Communications, has received thousands of dollars in payments from the PAC of Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a fellow Republican who now serves as chief elections officer.

Meanwhile, it appears that Hayden, a dentist who says he supports Medicaid but doesn't support the way that the state has funded it, has recently started a political action committee called "All 36" — presumably referring to "All 36" of Oregon's counties — the intention of which is to "bring education to all Oregonians about Oregon's policies."