SALEM — Democrats were able to snuff out two potentially volatile hearings on Wednesday through administrative maneuvers.

The Joint Interim Committee On Referendum 301 was able to remove the word “tax” from the ballot measure that could overturn a plan to generate $550 million in revenue through an “assessment” targeting hospitals and coordinated care organizations.

An hour earlier, a hearing originally seen as a sharp probe into mismanagement and dirty politics at the Oregon Health Authority was slowed by the refusal of key players in the incidents to cooperate. Managers who had since been removed refused to appear before the “informational” panel, and Gov. Kate Brown said she could not compel them to do otherwise.

The outcome of the Referendum 301 hearing was never in doubt after House and Senate leaders named supporters of the original bill to the committee to deal with the language of the ballot measure. Four Democrats and two Republicans were named to the panel, though Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, had voted with Democrats on the original bill.

The chairman, Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, had engaged in a heated exchange in July with Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, who started efforts to repeal portions of the law even before it was signed by Brown.

Referendum 301 asks voters to approve or reject a 1.5 percent assessment on health insurance premiums, the Public Employees Benefit Board and managed care organizations, and a 0.7 percent assessment on net revenue of some hospitals. A “yes” vote means voters approve of the law. A “no” vote would stop the law from taking effect. The law would generate an estimated $550 million to close a gap in the Medicaid budget for the state. Without the money, health care advocates say more than 350,000 Oregonians could lose health insurance.

Democrats rushed a bill through the Legislature that would require a referendum on the law to be held during a special election in January instead of the general election in November. Supporters of the law said that if the referendum qualified for the ballot and then passed in November, the state budget would be crippled by repaying costs since the beginning of the year.

Erin Seiler, the legislative analyst assigned to the committee, said public input had emphasized that voters should know what the impact would be of rejecting the law.

“The general theme was making sure there is clear impact on the life and the health care of Oregonians,” Seiler said.

The 15-minute hearing included a briefing by legislative counsel Dexter Johnson, who explained that the summary could not refer to the legislature’s action as a tax because the original bill referred to it as an assessment. The state Supreme Court has supported the view that referendum must use the language of the law that is to be overturned.

Johnson said partisans on both sides would have ample opportunity to make their case.

“The pro/con statements that are included in the ballot title are the appropriate place for those kind of arguments to be settled,” Johnson said.

After the presentation, there were no questions and no statements. The revisions were approved on a 5-1 vote, with Winters siding with Democrats. Only Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner voted no.

Parrish sent out a tweet that the committee actions wouldn’t derail efforts to qualify Referendum 301 for the ballot.

“Thanks Rep. Greg Smith for voting NO on the jerry-rigging of the ballot title to stop a sales tax on healthcare,” she wrote.

In the earlier meeting of the House Interim Committee on Health Care, lawmakers had hoped to grill top managers of the Oregon Health Authority about mismanagement. They also planned to focus on a botched scheme to plant negative stories in the press about FamilyCare, a health services provider that had been critical of the agency. When news of the plan broke, top management at the agency resigned or were replaced.

The committee had hoped to hear from management in charge at the time of the incident. But the agency said only current management would appear and that former managers could not be compelled to testify.

Pat Allen, the new acting director of the Oregon Health Authority promised that he would “own” the problems and find solutions. But he said he couldn’t answer many questions the panel had because he was unfamiliar with the policies and practices.

“I’ll cop to the two and a half weeks into the job excuse as long as I can,” Allen said.

— Reporter: 541-525-5280, gwarner@bendbulletin.com

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