- Associated Press - Thursday, June 29, 2017

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - A Republican lawmaker says she’s launching a statewide effort to derail a critical $670 million health care tax approved last week to fund Medicaid.

Rep. Julie Parrish confirmed her plans this week to challenge House Bill 2391, a tax package on health insurers and providers the Oregon Legislature passed to sustain health coverage for more than 350,000 local Medicaid expansion recipients. It also filled a large chunk of the 2017-19 budget hole that must be resolved by end of session on July 10.

The bill is supposed to kick-in within the next three months. But as soon as Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signs it Parrish - one of the bill’s most vocal critics due to its likely cost-shifts to patients during a still-unfolding controversy over Medicaid eligibility at the Oregon Health Authority - says she’ll file initial paperwork to challenge the bill.

If she successfully gathers more than 58,000 signatures within that 90-day window, the fate of some Medicaid recipients’ health care could be tossed back into limbo until voters have the final say next year.

“I’ll stand in front of the DMV and gather signatures all summer. That’s how I got signatures for Measure 96,” said Parrish, referring to the Legislature’s veterans-funding ballot referral that began as a citizens initiative sponsored by Parrish. “Voters really deserve the right to vote about whether we should cost-shift a failing program … This is about not hardwiring taxes on other people’s health care into statute.”

Parrish, known for her blunt, unorthodox style, has served the West Linn district near Portland since 2010. She also managed Republican Dennis Richardson’s successful 2016 bid for secretary of state - Oregon’s first statewide GOP politician in several years.

The provider tax passed with full support from Democrats and only four Republicans. Both parties are supportive of the Medicaid expansion program but disagree on how to pay for it as federal matching dollars decline and health care costs overall are rising.

Speculations of a ballot challenge began a few weeks ago when Parrish’s friend Lindsay Berschauer, a local political consultant who’s previously worked with Parrish on campaigns, filed a political action committee, called Oregonians Against More Healthcare Taxes, with Richardson’s office that handles the state’s elections.

Parrish says she will sponsor the referendum effort and the PAC, which has raised one $10,000 donation so far, will run the campaign. If her signature-gathering efforts succeed, the bill would automatically go on hold until voters decide in November 2018, when voter-turnout is high.

Democrats, however, want to exercise the Legislature’s right to set a special election in these instances. An amendment to Senate Bill 229 being considered would force any challenges to legislation passed in 2017 to a special election on January 23, a time when voter turnout is typically low and voter information pamphlets would be mailed toward the end of the holidays.

Democratic Rep. Dan Rayfield, a vice-chair of the House Rules Committee that’s considering the SB 229 changes, says a late January election would happen right before the 2018 legislative session begins, so lawmakers could more quickly react if voters rejected the provider tax.

“A ballot measure referral of the provider tax would drastically threaten health care to hundreds of thousands of Oregonians. Vulnerable Oregonians can’t wait until the next General Election to take care of a medical issue for themselves or a sick child_they need certainty as quickly as possible,” Rayfield said in an email.

Ballot title writing would also be handled by a bipartisan committee of lawmakers, which Rayfield says “will allow the process to bypass the partisan offices of the Republican Secretary of State and the Democratic Attorney General.”

The bill’s proposed amendment angered Parrish and fellow Republicans, who say it’s a form of voter suppression.

“By pursuing an oddly timed costly special election the apparent aim is to suppress voter turnout,” said Senate GOP Leader Ted Ferrioli. “The mechanisms they are using to accomplish this goal include excluding public comment, one-hour notice, and a stacked partisan committee. This is the result of one-party rule under the Democrats.”

House Democratic leaders say a possible vote on the bill could be scheduled for Friday.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Richardson called the move “political shenanigans” that could suppress turnout by about 14 percent, or roughly 270,000 voters, and cost millions of dollars that don’t need to be spent.

“The Oregon Constitution gives the people of Oregon the right to overrule the legislature through the referendum process. This protection ensures accountability and safeguards fundamental rights,” Richardson said. “This amendment does just the opposite.”

Parrish also balks at the suggestion that her efforts could jeopardize health care for thousands of low-income residents.

OHA has enough money in their bank account right now to run an operating budget, I believe, for about a year,” said Parrish, adding that if she felt otherwise “I might not consider referring it.”

Scott Moore, House Democratic spokesman, questioned Parrish’s logic in an email, saying even if the bill were upheld, “there’d be a year gap in funding creating a hole that would be impossible to dig out of.”

Parrish responded by saying they’ll know how much funding is really needed once OHA finishes the long-overdue eligibility determinations of 85,000 Medicaid recipients this fall.

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