Oregonians may get the chance to repeal a tax on hospitals, health insurers and the state’s coordinated care organizations in January, though they’ll have to be savvy to recognize that’s what is going on. Thanks in part to the handful of lawmakers the 2017 Legislature appointed to write the ballot title for the measure, the word “tax” may be nowhere to be seen.

Transparency is not always the goal of politicians.

Admittedly, the word “tax” doesn’t appear in House Bill 2391, the target of the referendum drive that’s being led by Reps. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn; Sal Esquivel, R-Medford; and Cedric Hayden, R-Lowell. That, the Legislature’s lawyers say, is what prevents the title on the referendum from including the word.

But just to be clear, an “assessment,” as used in the bill, is a tax, pure and simple. It’s compulsory, and it’s based on what the insurers and coordinated care organizations collect in premiums and on hospitals’ revenue, just like other income taxes. Because of the way the tax is structured, it includes what is effectively a sales tax on health care for some people, but not for others. How is that fair?

Democratic lawmakers have gone to great lengths to bamboozle the public about the bill. They’ve avoided the word “tax.” And, they seized for themselves the task of writing that ballot title, taking it away from the normally less-partisan process.

If all that sounds like politics as usual, do remember these words in February 2015, when Gov. John Kitzhaber was forced to resign. Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, D-Portland, told us: “Our actions going forward are focused on rebuilding the public’s trust in state government.” A short time later, the new governor, Kate Brown, touted her own record of pushing for government transparency.

If this is Oregon’s new openness, Oregonians are in trouble.

But whatever the final ballot title will read, it is about a tax.

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