SALEM — Three Republican lawmakers have set the stage for a possible ballot fight next year that could overthrow Oregon's new multimillion-dollar health care tax before it can take effect.
Republican Reps. Julie Parrish, Cedric Hayden and Medford's Sal Esquivel filed initial paperwork with state elections officials Wednesday for a voter referendum on House Bill 2391, which Gov. Kate Brown signed this week. If they can gather almost 59,000 valid signatures before its effective date in 90 days or so, the bill would be placed on hold until voters decide its fate, potentially during a special election on January 23.
Delaying the bill comes with high stakes. Tax revenue designed to help keep the Oregon Health Plan, the state's Medicaid program, afloat over the next two years couldn't be collected and health coverage for thousands of low-income residents may subsequently be jeopardized. It could also throw Oregon into "budget disarray," says Democratic Sen. Richard Devlin, the Legislature's state budget expert, since the bill fills more than one-third of the state's $1.4 billion deficit for the 2017-19 cycle.
HB 2391 passed the Oregon Legislature earlier this month with full support from Democrats and only four Republicans — one of them being Esquivel, who is not running for re-election next year and provided the one GOP vote in the House chamber needed for a supermajority.
He says he's now joining Parrish and Hayden's effort to block it because he wasn't initially aware the tax revenue could be used for other purposes, such as cost-free abortions in another bill now awaiting Brown's signature.
"I supported HB 2391 because I think those who qualify under the federal law should have a way to see the doctor. It was a hard vote, but it needed to be done," Esquivel said in a statement. "What's ensued since is a major overreach by the House Democrats to drive new costs and expand programs when we can't fully fund programs for our veterans and citizens. That's not how those tax increases were presented to me."
Both Democrats and Republicans in Salem are supportive of Medicaid and the expansion program under the Affordable Care Act. But they disagree how to pay for it as federal matching dollars decline, health care costs overall are rising, efforts to repeal the ACA are ongoing and the OHP remains in controversy over the eligibility statuses of thousands of Medicaid recipients.
House Bill 2391, the three House Republicans say, kicks those problems down the road and establishes new taxes on hospitals and insurers that would ultimately be shifted to consumers.
A referendum would place HB 2391 on the November 2018 ballot, or some other date set by the Legislature. Democrats are trying to establish a January 23 special election for only the health tax instead through last-minute changes to Senate Bill 229, which is expected to pass later this week.
That way, lawmakers could quickly react if need be in February when the 2018 session begins.
"Should it be referred and if voters actually reject the measure, we will need to figure out a way to rebalance the budget," Devlin said during a committee hearing earlier this week. "To be quite honest, I do not know how you would balance the budget without those funds, so I think we need to know where the voters are as soon as possible."