- Associated Press - Friday, December 1, 2017

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - The Democratic Party of Oregon filed a complaint Friday against Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, the top Republican state official, alleging he tried to sway voters against a ballot measure on a health-care tax that is the subject of a special election in January.

In a letter to Elections Director Steve Trout, Democratic Party Chairwoman Jeanne Atkins - who coincidentally preceded Richardson as Secretary of State - asked that the matter be referred to the state attorney general for investigation.

Richardson called the Oregon Health Authority “the agency of wasteful spending” in an official statement on Wednesday. He noted Oregon voters will soon be considering approving tax increases intended to provide additional funding to the OHA, and accused the health authority of misfeasance and obfuscation because it allegedly failed to cooperate with an audit his office recently conducted.

The audit found the health authority had wasted hundreds of millions of dollars because of improper Medicaid payments, Richardson said.

Atkins said Richardson, Oregon’s top election official, violated the law by using public resources to advocate elections decisions.

The law and accompanying rules “clearly prohibit the use of public employee work time to advocate for or against measures or produce any materials that are not impartial,” Atkins wrote.

In response, Richardson called the complaint “meritless” and said the matter has been transferred to the Oregon Department of Justice for review.

The Secretary of State’s office announced in October that enough valid signatures had been collected to qualify Referendum 301 for a special election, to be held on Jan. 23. Of the 84,367 signatures submitted, 70,320 were deemed valid. The required number of signatures to qualify for a ballot measure is just under 59,000.

Three Republican lawmakers are pushing the referendum on House Bill 2391 - which imposes a new 1.5 percent tax on health plans provided by some insurers as well as coordinated-care organizations that facilitate the state’s Medicaid program.

Reps. Julie Parish, Cedric Hayden and Sal Esquivel say the new taxes on hospitals and insurers would ultimately be shifted to consumers.

But proponents of the bill, approved by the Legislature this year and signed by Gov. Kate Brown, say it protects health care for 350,000 Oregonians and keeps premiums low for another 250,000.

Atkins said an investigation should address whether there have been improper communications about the referendum between Richardson and Parrish, who is Richardson’s paid political consultant as well as the chief petitioner.

“As a former Secretary of State, I understand better than most the importance of staying and appearing neutral and above all reproach when it comes to the secretary’s management of elections,” Atkins wrote to Trout.


Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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