If there is a downside to convening sessions of the Oregon Legislature in even-numbered years, it's that those also happen to be election years. If lawmaking normally resembles the production of sausage, as the old joke has it, stirring in an election makes the enterprise even less appetizing.
The aroma of election-year politics was evident this week in two developments involving the Cover Oregon website debacle.
One was a joint appearance by State Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, and U.S. Rep Greg Walden, calling for a federal audit of the process that led to the failed launch of the online component of Oregon's health insurance exchange. The other was a bill approved by the House health care committee in Salem designed to help Oregonians inconvenienced by the non-functioning website.
Richardson, who is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Gov. John Kitzhaber in November, insists he would be demanding accountability even if he weren't running for office. That might be true, although it's questionable whether he would have Walden's high-profile help.
The Cover Oregon fix-up bill in the Legislature, HB 4154, passed out of the health care committee unanimously, but not before a series of Republican amendments were defeated on party-line votes. Among those pushing the amendments was State Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, who happens to be running against U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley.
Among the amendments was one that would have dismantled Cover Oregon and requested a federal waiver allowing Oregonians to deal directly with insurers. Another would have asked Secretary of State Kate Brown to begin an immediate audit of Cover Oregon rather than waiting until October as required under state law. Another would have required that all results of an audit already commissioned by Kitzhaber be made public.
The bill as approved would seek a federal waiver for residents who already went outside the system, but the Republican amendment would have made that waiver permanent.
The fact is, the Cover Oregon system is succeeding in enrolling thousands of Oregonians, just at a slower pace because of the website problems. Junking the entire system now would be premature and needlessly confusing.
The governor has already requested an audit by an independent contractor. It's hard to see why a federal audit on top of that — at an as-yet unknown cost — plus a third study by the secretary of state's office are necessary unless the audit already under way turns out to be somehow deficient.
As for making the entire audit public, that sounds good — we're all for disclosure where government is concerned. But only information that falls under one of the exemptions in the public records law could be withheld legally, and that could include proprietary details of the software developed by Oracle, the tech company the state hired to build the website. Protecting proprietary information is a legitimate concern, as long as that doesn't obscure Oracle's responsibility for the website's failure.
Lawmakers' priorities, in order of importance, should be making the health care reform process work for as many Oregonians as possible, finding out why the website rollout failed, holding those involved responsible and preventing similar debacles in the future. Scoring political points in an election year should be far down the list.