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Capital Chatter: Oregon readies for elusive election

The health care provider tax package and the potential initiative to overturn it are complex

Oregon is preparing for an election that might never happen, which led to an odd legislative hearing this week.

Four Democrats and two Republicans took testimony on a proposed ballot title and explanatory statement for a potential January referendum. The election would be on taxes or assessments passed by the Legislature this year as part of House Bill 2391 to finance the Oregon Health Plan.

The health-tax opponents, mostly Republicans, have until early October to collect enough signatures to force the January election. Democrats question whether the opponents will meet that goal.

Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson laid out the timeline for preparing for the potential election, and Democrats are heeding it. Despite political disagreements, the process certainly is operating more collegially than the partisan attacks raging in Congress.

• A mass of confusion: House Bill 2391 has been signed into law. Republican Reps. Julie Parrish of West Linn and Cedric Hayden of Falls Creek, and other opponents, have detailed which parts they're seeking to put on hold and ultimately override through a successful referendum. However, the legislation — as well as the potential referendum — is so complicated that the first part of Tuesday's hearing was occupied with legislative lawyers explaining HB 2391 and the potential election.

A yes vote by voters would uphold the taxes. A no vote would cancel them.

Both sides want the draft ballot title and explanatory statement rewritten. Supporters of the health care taxes, including SEIU Local 503 Political Director Melissa Unger, said the ballot information should include the horrible impact if voters were to defeat the referendum. Hundreds of thousands of Oregonians might lose their health care coverage provided through the Oregon Health Plan, or OHP.

The most interesting testimony came from patients. Tess Raunig, of Portland, who was born with cerebral palsy, said OHP was one reason she moved from Montana to Oregon.

Nico Serra, of Health Care for All Oregon, talked about being injured by a car six weeks after moving to Oregon in 2010. He made arguably the most accurate statement of the hearing: "People kind of hate politics because it's so confusing."

• Opponents say claims exaggerated: Opponents dispute the referendum's potential impact on OHP, especially since a cleansing of the insurance rolls reduced the number of participants.

No opponents signed up to testify at the hearing; but in written testimony, they said the draft wording is confusing and unbalanced in favor of a yes vote. It inappropriately uses the euphemism of "assessments" instead of the more-accurate term, "taxes."

The Oregon Attorney General's Office normally writes ballot titles, but the Legislature's Democratic majority passed a separate bill this year handing that task to lawmakers and setting a special election date in January 2018 if the referendum signature drive is successful.

• Lawmakers' voting history in question: Opponents noted that five of the six members of the Legislature's Joint Interim Committee on Referendum 301 voted for the legislation in question.

The sixth is Republican Rep. Greg Smith of Heppner, whose inclusion drew a rebuke from House Republican Leader Mike McLane because House Speaker Tina Kotek had not followed House rules requiring her to consult with McLane on committee appointments.

As Smith said during a House debate this summer, he is not necessarily opposed to new taxes.

That is one reason the Democratic leadership treats him well and pumps up his clout, such as choosing his legislative district as the Eastern Oregon site for the statewide budget hearings held earlier this year.

The five other committee members — all from the Willamette Valley – are Democratic Sen. Richard Devlin, Tualatin, co-chair; Rep. Dan Rayfield, Corvallis, the other co-chair; Sen. Ginny Burdick, Portland, Senate majority leader; and Rep. Nancy Nathanson, Eugene; and Republican Sen. Jackie Winters, Salem.

All six were careful during the hearing to make no comments about the draft ballot wording or the testimony. The committee is scheduled to take action on Sept. 20.

Written comments on the draft ballot language, which is posted on the Legislature's website, will be accepted until 5 p.m. Sept. 19. Testimony can be emailed to jrf301.exhibits@oregonlegislature.gov.

• A long drive home: With the referendum committee scheduled to meet Tuesday morning in Salem, Rep. Smith was at the Oregon Coast for the Labor Day holiday.

By the time he was ready to head home, the fast-spreading Eagle Creek Fire had closed Interstate 84 in the Columbia River Gorge and was forcing him to drive through Sisters, Mitchell and Spray to reach Heppner — roughly a 280-mile trip.

Dick Hughes has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, @DickHughes or YouTube.com/c/DickHughes.