SALEM — At a debate on Measure 101 last week in Portland, union lobbyist Felisa Hagins chided those who disliked the hardball politics that marked the passage of a health provider tax last summer.
“The Legislature is not kindergarten, and there are no take-backies,” Hagins said. A good debate line, but not necessarily true.
On Jan. 23, votes will be tabulated on Measure 101. Oregonians are asked to ratify or reject a new law to use a health provider tax to generate $1.3 billion in state and federal money.
The money would be used to support health care for low-income residents.
A yes vote would ratify a 0.7 percent tax on some hospitals and a 1.5 percent tax on some health care providers. A no result would stop the taxes, and with it, proponents say, the money.
The measure is based on House Bill 2391, introduced last year. After sometimes vitriolic debate, vote trading and legislative parliamentary twists, the bill passed the House and Senate and was signed into law last July by Gov. Kate Brown.
In a year when other tax bills stalled or expired in committee, it was a rare victory for Democrats and a handful of Republican allies on the issue.
But elected officials don’t get the last word on Oregon’s laws. The state constitution allows for a referendum if opponents gather just over 58,000 signatures. Opponents turned in 70,230 that the secretary of state certified.
“We’re probably one of the most grass-roots campaigns I’ve ever seen in Oregon in a long time,” exulted Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, one of three sponsors of the petition drive, on the day the signatures were turned in.
With them, months of public hearings, analysis and debate could be erased and the Legislature sent back to the bargaining table when it reconvenes Feb. 5.
The hardball politics of the legislative fight and the steamroller of signatures by opponents seemed a preamble to a big-spending, high-volume, take-no-prisoners campaign — a somewhat smaller version of the Measure 97 campaign. That November 2016 campaign around a corporate tax brought out the wallets of major donors on both sides. In the end, the ballot measure lost.
The atmosphere for a high-stakes repeat at first seemed likely. The two front-runners for governor jumped in early to stake out positions on either side. Brown, who signed the original legislation, endorsed Measure 101. Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who had opposed the legislation in the House, came out against Measure 101.
The yes on Measure 101 side ramped up a major organizing, fundraising and get-out-the-vote drive. The list of 160 groups supporting the Measure ranged from the League of Women Voters to the American Association of Retired People to several unions, such as the Service Employees International Union.
Former Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, who had bucked the caucus he led to support the bill that is the basis of Measure 101, issued a joint statement with Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, touting their support for Measure 101.
“We don’t always agree. But on Measure 101, there’s no question: Oregonians should vote YES,” Ferrioli and Courtney said.
But after the early sparring, the battle of juggernauts failed to materialize.
The no campaign has been an inexplicably low-budget affair. The two main political action committees opposing Measure 101 had raised and spent just over $100,000 by the end of the year and are running a small deficit.
Asked if the campaign was essentially financially broke or if there was some fund that reporters had missed, Parrish ruefully said “Nope — you’ve read that right.”
Parrish says she is personally in the red $25,000, which she told the Willamette Week newspaper was not sitting well with her ex-Army officer husband.
“Other than a few business donations, our money is coming from everyday Oregonians, or the ‘nobodies’ as our opponents have derogatorily called them,” Parrish said.
Small rallies like a recent “honk against higher health care taxes” rally at the intersection of U.S. Highways 101 and 129 in Florence have been typical, with a few dozen volunteers who are “rowing the boat” on the campaign, coming out to encourage opposition.
The yes side brought in $2.7 million, spent $1.9 million and had over $700,000 in reserve at the end of the year. The funds have continued to flow in the week plus since then.
A large share of the money is going into digital campaigning — ads on Facebook and targeted email blasts are a top expenditure.
But finding a 101 yard sign — yes or no — can be a frustrating hunt. Television is not saturated with ads as it was during the last days of the Measure 97 fight.
Parrish has traveled the state taking part in debates with a variety of yes proponents. Her message: This “assessment” is a sales tax on health care. The no campaign has centered on the word “tax.” The two main groups are Stop Healthcare Taxes and Oregonians Against More Healthcare Taxes.
Opponents are counting on arguments in the Voter’s Pamphlet, which for many Oregonians may be the only time they pay attention to the issue on the ballot.
Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, one of the key sponsors, often hit the cap lock button on his keyboard, when writing his pamphlet entry:
“There’s NO RISK 350,000 low-income Oregonians will lose health care if you vote NO on 101! Income tax revenue created by Oregon’s $5 BILLION DOLLAR health care industry exceeds the revenue we need to fund Medicaid patients.”
Proponents are pushing some big math: The Oregon Health Plan covers 1 million people, with 40 percent children. Under the expansion of coverage allowed by the Affordable Care Act, more than 350,000 people received health care who previously were not enrolled. To vote no would be to throw those people off health care and throw $1.3 billion away.
In Salem, legislative leaders are taking no chances. Asked what Democrats major initiatives would be in the 2018 session, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said it was too early to know.
“Our priorities for the 2018 session will depend on the success or failure of Measure 101,” Kotek said. “Once voters make that decision, we’ll have more clarity on how to set priorities in the short session.”
Asked if she believed her side would prevail, Parrish said she had to remain optimistic.
“Look, we had one main goal — let voters vote,” she said, adding, “We’ll be at peace with the outcome because we know we tried to blow the whistle on what is really happening in the Oregon health care systems.”
— Reporter: 541-525-5280, firstname.lastname@example.org