O n its website, the Secretary of State’s Office has posted a slew of arguments for and against Measure 101, the referendum that will place a handful of health care taxes — officially “assessments” — before voters in January. The Voters’ Pamphlet, to be mailed at the end of December, will feature the arguments, one of which deserves an asterisk and a footnote.
Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, have teamed up on a bipartisan argument in support of the measure. “As the Democratic Senate President, and the Senate Republican Leader, we don’t always agree,” it reads in part. “But on Measure 101, there’s no question: Oregonians should vote YES.”
The asterisk: Ferrioli is no longer the Senate Republican leader, having been supplanted by Sen. Jackie Winters of Salem in the middle of November. Moreover, by the time most Oregonians receive their Voters’ Pamphlets — and long before the Jan. 23 election — Ferrioli will have ceased to be a member of the Senate. He has tendered his resignation effective Dec. 31.
You could argue that this is hair-splitting. After all, Ferrioli was the Senate minority leader in June, when he voted for House Bill 2391, the Medicaid-funding bill whose most controversial elements have been sent to the ballot in the form of Measure 101. Heck, he was probably minority leader when he agreed to appear alongside Courtney in the Voters’ Pamphlet.
Ferrioli’s disappearing act is relevant, however, because of the circumstances of his departure, which should serve as a footnote to his ballot argument.
As a revenue-raising measure, HB 2391 needed three-fifths support in each legislative chamber in order to pass. Despite their powerful majorities, Democrats needed a “yes” vote from at least one Republican each in the House and Senate. One Republican came through in the House, and three did in the Senate, including the one at the very top of the minority-party heap, Ferrioli.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this funding measure to the Legislature’s majority party and to the governor, Kate Brown. The hundreds of millions promised by its new taxes — sorry, “assessments” — closed a yawning budget gap that otherwise would have demanded politically difficult cuts. No doubt, there was gratitude in abundance.
Then, presto! Only months after the legislative session ended, Brown appointed Ferrioli and Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, to serve on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
The position is a sinecure that comes with a six-figure salary, which tends to come in handy when it’s time to calculate pension benefits under the state’s embattled Public Employees Retirement System. For a longtime legislator with a puny salary, that’s a real power spike.
Thus, even as Oregonians receive their ballots in January and consider raising the cost of health care in order to prop up the state budget, one of the bipartisan power couple urging a “yes” vote from the pages of the Voters’ Pamphlet will be easing himself onto the PERS gravy train. Whatever possessed the governor to hand him a boarding pass — Ferrioli and Brown’s office insist his support of HB 2391 played no role — the appearance is more than a little nauseating.
But, then, much about this process has been nauseating.
When a handful of Republicans set about referring parts of HB 2391 to voters, the Legislature took extraordinary measures to steer the outcome. It moved up the date of the election to January. The vote otherwise would have occurred in the relatively high-turnout general election in November.
The Legislature created a Democrat-heavy committee to write the ballot title, injecting an extra dose of partisanship into a task normally undertaken by the Attorney General’s Office.
Finally, in a transparent act of voter manipulation, the end result of the committee’s work never mentions the word “tax,” referring to the revenue-generating mechanisms instead as “assessments.”
This despite the fact that floor letters submitted by at least two House Democrats refer to HB 2391 as a “health care provider tax.” Even an analyst from the Legislative Fiscal Office used the “t” word in June, explaining that the legislation “creates a new managed care/insurer tax at a rate of 1.5%.”
Given the cynical manipulation by lawmakers determined to prop up HB 2391 by whatever means necessary, no reasonably well-informed taxpayer could help looking askance at Ferrioli’s plum appointment. And few who read through the Measure 101 arguments could fail to appreciate the brazenness behind his shared endorsement with Courtney. But, hey, if it’s bipartisan, it must be beyond question, right?
What’s particularly unfortunate is that none of this has anything to do with the merits of the health-care taxes themselves. Measure 101’s supporters, rather, have harmed their own cause by taking extraordinary measures to game the process. If the case for tax hikes is so clear, voters should be asking, why have lawmakers behaved in this way?
But that, like the reasons for Ferrioli’s appointment, is a question Oregonians apparently aren’t supposed to ask.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.